Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Foundation of Ethics

After relegating Kant's ethics to "inadmissible assumption" and "theological morals in disguise", Schopenhauer then moves on to outline his own foundation of ethics. In general, Schopenhauer deems most previous forms of ethics as merely...

"... difficult combinations, heuristic rules, propositions balanced on a needle point, and stilted maxims, from which it is no longer possible to look down on real life and its hurly-burly. They are certainly very well adapted for echoing in lecture halls and for giving practice and sagacity and subtleness, but can never produce the appeal that actually exists in everyone to act justly and do good, or counterbalance the strong tendencies to injustice and harshness." 121

In other words, the foundations put forth by previous ethics are more scholarly than practical, and more for play than for serious inquiry into our deepest and darkest regions of the human character. They remain virtually impotent while staring down a barrel of impending doom. Utterly useless. Find me one person that begins to recite the categorical imperative or "test his maxim", while thrown head on into a moral dilemma. Schopenhauer understands this is not the case. This is his solution:

"If, therefore, we take the matter seriously, artificial concept-combinations of that kind can never contain the true incentive to justice and philanthropy. On the contrary, such an incentive must be something that requires little reflection and even less abstraction and combination; something that, independently of the formation of the intellect, speaks to every man, even the coarsest and crudest; something resting merely on intuitive apprehension and forcing itself immediately on us out of the reality of things. So long as ethics cannot point to a foundation of this kind, it may carry on its disputations and make a show in the lecture halls, but real life will make it an object of ridicule. I must, therefore, give the teachers of ethics the paradoxical advice of first looking around a little at the lives of men". 121

*13 Skeptical View

Is it the case that all attempts to previous foundations of ethics are in vain because they usually amount to nothing more than straw man arguments and instruments to control what Schopenhauer calls the "selfish and wicked human race"? 121

The police and laws could only restrain one from these acts, but cannot bring one to philanthropy or genuine morality. As Schopenhauer says, "it can only enforce justice, but not philanthropy and beneficence". It does not necessarily imply that if one follows the laws of the land, then they are necessarily moral. In other words, "We should be greatly and childishly mistaken if we thought that all the just and lawful acts of mankind had a moral origin. On the contrary, the relation between justice as practiced by men and genuine honest of heart is analogous to that between expression of politeness and the genuine love for one's neighbor. Unlike politeness, such love overcomes egoism ostensibly, but actually." 122 Point being - morality in the legislative imperative form is just another set of laws with no foundation, just as politeness as a social law, is not genuine love.

For Schopenhauer, the world of human interaction that we live and move in, and the level of civility in our interactions, is maintained by actual laws and more importantly public opinion. "By their means everyone's steps are under the supervision of public opinion, which is inexorably severe, and in this respect never forgives even a single false step, but remembers it as an indelible stain on the guilty man for the rest of his life." 122

Think of the role media plays in portraying some of these questionable actions. Public opinion is shaped so often by these external outlets that individuals who should hang their heads in shame are often celebrated as heroes. This phenomenon is new and people haven't really absorbed the enormity of this situation. The grip that public opinion has on restraining actions lies in its starting point - "What we do follows from what we are". 122

More specifically, a person doesn't change and the murderer will strike again, the thief will rob again, and the drunk driver will drink and drive again. In other words, "what a man has once done he will inevitably do again in precisely the same circumstances." Politicians seem to have found a loophole around winning public opinion back in their favor. The American senator Robert Byrd, one time "Exalted Cyclopes" of the KKK and former segregationist has held his senate seat for 50 straight years. To make this issue even more strange, he is a high ranking member of the Democratic party, a party of social liberalism. Clearly, Senator Bryd has managed to win back public opinion in his favor.

Schopenhauer introduces what he calls the "skeptical view" - from his description I am assuming it's closer to being the "traditional view" of morality. One particularly interesting question raised by the "skeptical view" was the role conscience plays in censoring our actions. Schopenhauer agrees this construct called "conscience" does play a role, but is made up of nothing more than "one fifth fear of men, one-fifth fear of gods, one-fifth prejudice, one-fifth vanity, and one-fifth habit." 127

Schopenhauer anticipates a charge level against him that he is wrongheaded to explain the question of "how people behave" rather than giving laws concerning how we "ought" to act. As we learn in the first part of "On the Basis of Morality", Schopenhauer rejects the notion of an imperative based ethics, and goes so far as to describe it as "theological morals in disguise". On the contrary, Schopenhauer goes on to explain "that the purpose of ethics is to indicate, explain, and trace to its ultimate ground the extremely varies behavior of men from a moral point of view. Therefore there is no other way for discovering the foundation of ethics than the empirical, namely, to investigate where there are generally any actions to which we must attribute genuine moral worth". 130

The game Schopenhauer is hunting is an explanation for things that move people to actions different from all others, i.e., the gravest offenses and the greatest deeds. Moreover, he feels the true foundation of morality will reveal itself through the examination of our motives and the susceptibility to following the motives.

In closing, Schopenhauer states:
This is the humble path to which I direct ethics; it contains no construction a priori, no absolute legislation for all rational beings in abstracto. Whoever thinks that it is not sufficiently fashionable, doctrinaire, and academic, may return to the categorical imperative, to the shibboleth of the "dignity of man", to the hollow phrases, the brain-webs and soap bubbles of the schools, to principles ridiculed at every step by experience, to principles whereof no one outside the lecture halls knows anything or has ever had any experience. On the other hand, the foundation of morals that is reached on my path is upheld by experience, which daily and hourly affords its silent testimony in favor thereof. 130

Next - Antimoral Incentives

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