Monday, February 23, 2009

Schopenhauer’s Criticism of Kant’s Ethics

I am well aware, yet without any feelings of remorse or regret, that the truths expounded in this essay…strike at many deeply rooted prejudices and errors, particularly at a certain nursery school morality…

The name Arthur Schopenhauer provokes a sense of loathing amidst philosophical circles. The iconoclastic nature of his philosophy, the brutal frankness of his criticisms, his blatant lack of respect for both his philosophical contemporaries, and the overall misinterpretation of his system are the causes of such reproach from intellectual circles. His name still carries this stigma. This is almost comedic considering Schopenhauer's writings suffer from the same malediction today as in 1818 with the publication of The World as Will and Representation, and yet, for the very few remaining Schopenhauerian's of the world his fate is far from comedic and indeed, sorrowful in many ways. Professors and students alike are missing out on some of the most beautifully written German prose, a mass of prophetic insights, one of the clearest and most concise metaphysical systems in the history of Western philosophy, and moreover, Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's philosophy, in particular his ethics, is full of rich and fecund ideas.

Schopenhauer dedicates a lengthy and detailed criticism of Kant's ethics at the beginning of his wonderfully written essay, On the Basis of Morality. He places Kant's practical philosophy under scrutiny with "lynxlike perspicacity" and Euclideanlike exactitude, which is not uncommon to his method of argumentation. Throughout all of his writings, one can find traces of this unprejudiced criticism against his mentor, even in his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer dedicates a chapter on the criticism of Kant's philosophy, most of which is concerned with the problems of ethics. A treasure-chest of knowledge is contained in Schopenhauer's private manuscript remains, which span from 1809-1860. His manuscripts show the development of his thought; moreover how he came to cross paths with his mentor's ethical system and adopt an Eastern perspective on morality. In short, he never forget the great teachings and advances Kant brought to the world of philosophy, and in turn also had no problems reminding the reader that, "It is much easier to point out the faults and errors in the work of a great mind than to give a clear and complete exposition of its value."

This essay deals with some of the more serious charges Schopenhauer brought against Kant's ethics. 1. Schopenhauer concludes that Kant assumes the existence of moral laws without proper validation from inner nature or objectivity and it is from this wrong path that Kant sets up his ethics in the legislative imperative form. 2. Schopenhauer claims that the notions of law, duty, obligation, and ultimately, the principle of his ethics is hypothetical and not categorical. 3. Schopenhauer states that the a priori, synthetical, formal, structure of the foundation renders it impractical, useless in the face of great danger, and far removed from the "hurly-burly" of everyday life. 4. The foundation and principle of Kant's ethics are concealed forms of theological morals. The final section is dedicated to Schopenhauer's fantastic solution to the problem of combining both ethics and metaphysics.

Beforehand we should note that prior to his criticism, Schopenhauer makes the wise move of dividing Kant's ethical system into foundation and principle. He defines the foundation as the "ground or reasoning" of the ethics and the principle as the "fundamental proposition" of the ethical system. He concludes and rightfully so, that the foundation of Kantian ethics is outlined in the preface to Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals and the principle itself is the main purpose of the text as a whole and considers that both the foundation and the principle are further developed and sharpened up in The Critique of Practical Reason. For the sake of clarity, I intend to concentrate primarily on Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, and refer to The Critique of Practical Reason, only when it is completely necessary to satisfy the argument.

At the very outset of the essay, Schopenhauer reveals Kant's first petitio principii taken from a quote in GMM: "In practical philosophy we are not concerned with stating reasons for what happens, but with giving laws as regards to what ought to happen, even though it may never happen." Immediately, many questions come to the surface: Who is the legislator of the laws? How do the laws gain validation, and to what obligation do I have to follow the laws? I imagine that millions of Christians throughout the world would read into this and undoubtedly say that the moral law is God's commandment, and it is our obligation as God fearing mortals to follow the law so as to avoid punishment, or gain a seat at the right hand of the Father. However, this is not the direction Kant planned to go, or was it?

How does Kant justify the formation of his ethics in the legislative imperative form and the moral law as the foundation from which to build his system? Schopenhauer demands that if Kant is to assume moral laws as definitely existing then he needs to supply proof from either the inner essence or the objective world. Until then, he finds no other justification for law into ethics other than the Mosaic Decalogue. Schopenhauer states:

If in scientific ethics we are intent not merely on recommending honesty but also on practicing it, then, in order to assume still other laws for the will beside that of motivation, laws, which are original and independent of all human ordinance, we have to demonstrate and deduce them from their entire existence. Until that proof has been furnished, I recognize no other origin for the introduction of the concept of law, precept, injunction into ethics than one that is foreign to philosophy, namely, the Mosaic Decalogue…On the contrary it will be rejected until it is accredited and introduced by fair and legitimate proof. In it, we have Kant's first petitio
principii, and it is a big one.

This sounds like a fair stipulation for any ethical system. The individual must have an intimate connection to the moral law and in turn, the moral law must be omnipotent if it is to control and overpower the will. The law's independence from material factors causes one to doubt its impact on governing the course of action. If we assume that mankind is at bottom good natured and knows how to act morally under any given circumstance, then the law would in turn not need the Herculean strength demanded by the brutal reality that man is indeed a crude, and vile beast.

Kant describes the moral law as an a priori, formal, synthetical proposition. It is a priori in that it exists prior to all experience; formal in that it refers to form and not substance; and synthetical, in that it adds to the proposition something not usually considered a constituent. Therefore, the moral law does not gather content from the empirical world, but rather, it is woven into human nature before any empirical intervention. From this angle, the moral law appears without any substance. Schopenhauer traces the history of the word law back to its original roots in civil law, lex, νόμος, "a human institution resting on human choice or discretion". He then explains the laws of nature, as a "second, derived, figurative, metaphorical meaning", and lastly, the "law of motivation" as the law pertaining to regulating the human will. This final form will come under scrutiny further on in the essay. We find that the moral law falls into neither of these categories, but yet, Kant gives it supreme power independent of any external or internal factors, it merely is. On the contrary, Schopenhauer finds that the moral law is unjustifiable outside of any reference to "human ordinance", "State institution", or "religious doctrine". Along these lines it grows increasingly clear that he is quite correct to charge Kant with committing a petitio principii by merely assuming moral laws to exist and to recommend that the concept of law should be thoroughly admonished from any philosophical ethical system, that is until Kant can supply a valid proof other than empty, concepts.

Seemingly blind to this error, Kant introduces the concept of "duty" as the binding force of the moral law. With this, Schopenhauer is quick to "lodge a protest". Duty in the "unconditional sense" as Kant describes, is crippled by the same factors as the concept of law, and so Schopenhauer claims once again, that the concept of duty is only effective from within a theological framework. In the original stoical sense of the word, "duty" is signified as the reverting away from virtue as the "highest good". One's action and conduct are not the sources of virtue; instead, Kant deems the actions from duty or obligation and out of "unconditional" necessity of purely moral worth. This explains why, as Schopenhauer notes, the disinterested moral act of the miser is of a higher ethical value than an act out of compassion or "voluntary inclination". An action out of reverence for the law is the supreme and highest good.

However, we continually seem to get pushed back to the opening statements that charge Kant with unjustly introducing ethics in the legislative imperative form. Why is it the individual's duty to act out of reverence for the law? Even if we assume that it is the individual's duty to act out of reverence for the law then we must necessarily consider out of what incentive this act occurs. From the Kantian standpoint, the individual's duty to the law is beyond any material conditions, but let us perhaps assume for the moment that Kant is correct to bind the supposed moral law to duty.

Any ethical system grounded in the concept of duty independent of any inner or outer material is most commonly spun out of theological morals. Outside of this realm, in order for an individual to perform any intentional act whether upon another object or person, it must necessarily possess a catalyst causing the individual to act in such a way rather than in any other way. Schopenhauer explains this as the "law of motivation". Kant describes the catalyst for an act out of duty and reverence for the law by neither any external or internal motivation, for it must be so to follow the definition of the a priori, formal, synthetical form. In effect, an act must necessarily follow subordination from the law and from what Kant calls "unconditional duty". Schopenhauer complains that Kant is merely "feeding the reader on fair words". There is indeed a condition that hides behind the shadow of "unconditional duty".

Schopenhauer claims that for the law, and duty to the law, to have any impact on altering one's actions it must necessarily be attached to a "promised reward" or "threatened punishment". He is not alone in this camp and quotes Locke as saying:

For since it would be utterly in vain to suppose a rule set to the free actions of man, without annexing to it some enforcement of good and evil to determine his will; we must, wherever suppose a law, suppose also some reward or punishment annexed to that law.

This goes against both the foundation and the principle of Kant's ethics. Yet, how is it otherwise? Perhaps, this will clarify any confusion.

Anecdote: Imagine someone finds a wallet swollen with hundreds of dollars, no identification or source of address, phone number, or e-mail. From the Kantian standpoint, the person is to return the money to the local police station. However, on the way to the police station he notices a sign posted on a telephone pole that says: Lost Wallet – Reward If Found – Contact: Jill Doe at 487-4067. This works out swell. The wallet is given back to the rightful owner and there is a reward. Then from the depths of consciousness the individual hears a voice say, "Return the wallet and reject any reward." Okay, fine. Our hero in this story walks forty blocks to return the wallet and upon arrival is greeted by a smiley old woman with silver hair and wearing a housecoat. She says, "Thank you so much! Please take this small reward of twenty dollars for all the trouble you went through." Our hero replies, "No, thank you." She is stunned and pleased at the same time. "Would you like to come in for some tea, it's the least I can do." And listening to that little voice in his head, he says, "No, thank you. I must leave now." She insists, "When I found out you recovered the wallet I baked you a cake, so please, take this cake as a token of my appreciation." He necessarily replies, "No, thank you." Now he thinks that he is the brightest thing since gold. He returned the wallet and refused to accept any offers for compensation. What he fails to realize is that the smiley old women is now crying and very upset that he didn't come in for tea or even accept the cake she baked for him.

Not only does this prove the silliness in removing reward or punishment from any law or duty that governs one's actions, but also shows how the refusal of a gift or reward is sometimes in poor taste. The case we just observed might only be a story, but this is indeed the prescriptive formula of Kantian ethics. We find ourselves back at square one. What urged our hero to listen to the voice and not accept the various rewards?

The religious person sees no problems with this and immediately recognizes duty and reverence for the law as God's command and the only reason why his command has any impact is because of the hell and pain he has the power to cast upon any individual. Job's fate serves as a perfect example of God's wraith, and to boot, Job was a moral man. This makes more sense if we are to act out of duty to the law. Ultimately, there is a reason why Christians strive to live by the Ten Commandments: To gain entrance into heaven and spend eternity with God.

In addition, we can't forget the power that must be invested in the law and duty. I am not going to waste precious time to remind the reader of the innumerable evils humankind commits on a daily basis. If you doubt this charge against humanity, then pick up any newspaper and read the headlines. However, the law and duty is intended to restrict our actions and curb our animal nature. If the law is to act in such a way, and is to take the place of reward or punishment, and if the immaterial is to control the material, then it must necessarily have a far more intimate connection to motivation and action than Kant assumes.

I think Schopenhauer is right to state that obligation and duty are impotent without some connection to reward or punishment because otherwise the individual has no incentive to act morally. He states:

A commanding voice, whether coming from within or from without, cannot possibly be imagined except as threatening or promising, and then obedience to it is, of course, wise or foolish according to circumstances, and yet it will always be selfish and without moral value…since everything done with respect to reward or punishment is necessarily an egoistic transaction, and as such is without purely moral value…

This is one of many tragic flaws in Kantian ethics. Case and point: If one annexes punishment and reward to obligation then the foundation of Kant's ethics is rendered hypothetical and not categorical. There is no reason to believe we ought to act according to the moral law and the elimination of reward or punishment just clouds the issue.

Kant fails to convince the reader that an act is moral if and only if it is out of reverence for the law. It almost seems silly to believe him, and yet he is such a brilliant philosopher that one cannot help but to continue to try and find their way through this diaphanous haze. From this dark corner, I am overcome with grief by the circumlocutions and the tower of assumptions.

The next charge Schopenhauer brings against the foundation of Kantian ethics is the lack of real substance; on the grounds, that Kant sets up the moral law, and the foundation of his ethics in the a priori, formal, synthetical structure.

During the course of life, we are confronted with a concurrent series of grim and painful experiences. However, there are instances of temporary relief from this harsh reality; naturally, these brief instances soon disappear without a trace. We can never know what card nature is going to deal. This is the real question of ethics, How should we play the hand that nature deals? This takes a keen eye because one never knows what trick nature is hiding up her sleeve. Indeed, "Life is like March weather; violent and serene in one hour". Can the foundation of Kant's ethics withstand the storms of life? I don't think so; without gathering content from empirical reality, the foundation of his system has nothing grounding it to earth. I didn't come to this conclusion through purely intellectual means. Consequently, I came to this decision as the result of a profoundly strange philosophical experiment.

Several years ago, the Dean of Long Island University asked Dr. Eric Walther and I to present a paper on Kant and Schopenhauer as part of an Ethics symposium. I had plenty of time to prepare for the symposium. After years of study, I was completely at home in Schopenhauer's system, so all that was left to do was re-familiarize myself with Kant's ethics. I decided that I was going to incorporate Kant's practical philosophy into my everyday social setting.

For myself at least, this was a new approach to philosophy. Instead of thinking about Kant's ethics at a desk in my apartment, I decided in the spirit of the American transcendentalists, to try it out in the "outside" world. This experiment marked a new way of coming to terms with a philosophical idea, similar to the "Gonzo" approach Hunter S. Thompson incorporated into the world of journalism.

After several weeks of this experiment, I was described by friends that were unaware of this sociological / philosophical experiment as "acting peculiar", "taking too long to make a decision", "cold-hearted and insensitive", "crippled by anticipatory anxiety", "indecisive"... In fact, in the darkest moment, I almost lost my job for not performing a voluntary service for one customer because otherwise I would have to do the same for every customer. I had to refrain from giving money to the homeless on the street; the other option was to give every homeless person in the city money. Driving through traffic was an issue unto itself! I was plagued by trivial concerns of all kinds. Luckily enough, I failed to come up against any serious problems during my experiment. There is a good chance to this very day I would still be reflecting upon the right decision. So, after almost losing my friends, my job, my girlfriend, and my ability to drive through traffic without becoming a victim of road rage, I came to the conclusion that Kant's ethics is as Schopenhauer claimed perfect for the lecture halls, and useless in common experience. He states:

An ethics based on pure, abstract concepts, a priori without reference to the empirical is useless in the storms of life…lacks real substance…the total lack of reality and hence of possible effectiveness. It floats in the air like a web of the subtlest concepts devoid of all substance; it is based on nothing and so can support nothing and move nothing.

The statement "and so can support nothing" takes me to an issue that I have been continually scratching on throughout the essay but only in reference to the foundation of morality – the categorical imperative. This is a very serious issue and not merely just a problem used to fill a page, or nit-pick and intentionally find problematic when in actuality it is quite logical.

The categorical imperative is briefly mentioned early on in the GMM and only then formally introduced later on in the chapter, "Autonomy of the Will as the Supreme Principle of Morality". The imperative form of the law is synonymous with the autonomy of will, "the property the will has of being a law to itself", and is the key that turns all the locks in Kant's practical philosophy. He explains the first and supreme form of the principle as, "Never to choose except in such a way that in the same volition the maxims of your choice are also present as a universal law." This principle takes on the same a priori, formal, synthetical design as the foundation and is applicable to all rational beings as the command center for the

will. Since the will is autonomous, it must be categorical and not hypothetical, in that it is the self-legislating agency of freedom, without any reference to an object, cause, or feeling. Even though the categorical imperative is devoid of any external or internal factors it is still as Kant explains inextricably linked to all rational beings on a universal scale.

Schopenhauer indicated a very unique interpretation of universalization and the categorical imperative. This is quite a tricky argument to unpack. I'll start with the boldest of statements: Practical reason is one and the same as theoretical reason. Yet, there is one factor that distinguishes the former from the latter. The categorical imperative of practical reason is the product of what Schopenhauer calls, a "very subtle thought process". He states:

By disdaining all empirical motives of the will, in advance Kant removed as empirical everything objective and everything subjective on which a law for the will could be based. And so for the substance of that law he had nothing left but its own form. Now this is simply conformity to law; but such conformity consists in its being applicable to all, and so in its universal validity itself. It will therefore read: "Act only in accordance with that maxim which you can at the same time wish will become a universal law for all rational beings." Thus this is Kant's real establishment of the moral principle that is so generally misunderstood, and consequently the foundation of his whole ethics.

This complex thought process is the factor that attaches the title "practical" to reason, and without this thought process, it would necessarily remain in the theoretical sense. Nevertheless, theoretical reason is responsible for the thought process that makes reason, practical.

This carries with it some obvious problems. The law is designed in such a way that it should appear directly and immediately within us. This is not so. The discovery of the law needs to be catalyzed by another motive. However, this goes against the Kantian system that states the categorical imperative is the source of all moral deeds regardless of external motives. On pg. 76, Schopenhauer explains the point that if the law is not immediately revealed to the individual then it stands to be a good chance that an occasion will fail to arise that reveals the law.

For on this assumption there exists for him no request and certainly no reason, why it should occur to him to ask about, not to mention inquire into and ponder over, a law which would restrict his willing, and to which he would have to submit his willing, whereby it would first then be possible for him to hit upon the strange thought process of the above reflection.

I agree with Schopenhauer in regards to this issue. One learns of the moral law and the categorical imperative through their reading of Kant's practical philosophy. However, Kant attributes concepts to the moral law and categorical imperative that necessarily make it seem more obvious than it actually is. The law should be as apparent to a tribesman in Malawi as it is to a person of higher education. The educated individual could possibly intellectualize the law through Kant's writings but I find no reason to believe that the tribesman without knowledge of Kantian ethics could form an accurate description of this formula for all moral action. After all, the law is applicable to all rational beings; nowhere does Kant mention level of intelligence.

Another problem with the categorical imperative, which by this point should be obvious to the reader, is that the real, fundamental basis of both the principle put forth in its various forms is nothing more than concealed egoism. This should be no surprise to the reader. Schopenhauer considers that the universalization of Kant's practical philosophy designates the moral agent as both passive and active. Passive meaning the person onto whom the act is inflicted and active meaning the person that performs the action. Schopenhauer deconstructs the various forms of the principle that point in this direction. Read the following statements keeping in mind the underlying egoism that each of which pivot on:

  1. I cannot wish for a general law to establish lying because no one would any longer believe me, or I should be paid the same coin.
  2. The universality of a law that everyone can promise whatever occurs to him with the intention of not keeping his promise, would render impossible that promise itself and the object in view, whatever this be, since no one would believe it.
  3. A will that decided on this would contradict itself, since cases can occur in which a man needs the love, and sympathy of others, and in which, through such a natural law that is evolved from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the help which he desires for himself.
  4. If everyone regarded the distress of others with complete indifference and you belonged also to such an order of things, would you be there with the assent of your will?
  5. For everyone wants to be helped. If however, he were to give utterance to his maxim not to want to help others, everyone would be entitled to refuse him assistance. Hence the selfish maxim contradicts itself.
  6. The principle of always acting in accordance with the maxim whose universality as law you can at the same time will, is only the condition on which a man's will can never be in antagonism with itself.

The only consolation I can offer the reader if these six quotations taken from The Critique of Practical Reason, Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, and The Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals broke his or her heart, is to reread the disclaimer at the beginning of the essay. Clearly, egoism, in the guise of "assumed reciprocity" is the nexus of Kant's principle of ethics. Schopenhauer rephrases Kant's moral principle as "Do not to another what you do not wish to be done to you" and I think he is correct to do so because the motivation that we searched so hard to find in the above case of our hero and the missing wallet was evident the whole time – "assumed reciprocity". The egoistic element had nothing to do with the reward or refusal of the reward but rather, it had to do with the active agent imagining one day being the passive agent. This was a nifty trick on Kant's part intended to conceal the real nature of his ethics. In short, the universalization of Kant's moral law grants that the active agent is by necessity the potential passive agent which therefore deems the principle as grounded in egoism, and consequently, the whole of the ethics is rendered hypothetical and not categorical as he imagines. Schopenhauer states:

It is perfectly clear from this explanation that that fundamental rule of Kant is not, as he incessantly asserts, a categorical imperative, but in fact a hypothetical one. For tacitly underlying it is the condition that the law to be laid down for my action, since I raise it to one that is universal, also becomes the law for my suffering, and on this condition I, as the eventualiter passive part, certainly cannot will injustice and uncharitableness.

This is a tragic error.

So far, each of the errors found in Kantian ethics pivot on the notion that there is a

missing element. This missing element renders both the foundation unstable and the principle ineffective. This is something I touched on throughout the essay. I am inclined to agree with Schopenhauer in the sense that Kantian ethics is really "theological morals in disguise". The gaps left open in Kant's system, i.e., the assumed legislative imperative form, the concealed egoism lying behind the categorical imperative, and the lack of substance in the pure, a priori, formal, synthetical form are more often than not correctable by inserting theological morals in the system. Let's re-examine some of the questions that came up during this examination:

  1. Who or what serves as legislator for the moral law?
  2. How do the laws gain validation, and to what obligation do I have to follow the laws?
  3. How does Kant justify the formation of his ethics in the legislative imperative form and the moral law as the foundation from which to build his system?
  4. How does Kant describe the catalyst for an act out of duty and reverence for the law?
  5. Can Kant's ethics withstand life's innumerable trials and tribulations?

Each of these questions is answerable from within a theological framework. The assumed legislator, the notion of reward and punishment, the lack of substance, etc., are consequences of Kant's refusal to reveal the real motivation underlying his practical philosophy. Schopenhauer states:

At the end of this searching examination, which must have taxed the reader, I should now by way of diversion be permitted to make a facetious and indeed frivolous comparison. In that self-mystification I should liken Kant to a man at a ball, who all evening long has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest, when at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself as his wife.

Schopenhauer's prose is continually highlighted by such wonderful imagery. I have a somewhat different approach to Kant's hidden motivation. Kant's attempt to carry on the success he had with his theoretical philosophy onto his practical philosophy reminds me of a used-car salesman who is so enthusiastic about selling a car that he also tries to pitch the customer on a warranty. Schopenhauer admits that Kant's greatest merit is the separation of the a priori and the a posteriori. However, Kant was unjustified to introduce this separation into his practical philosophy. I urge the reader to reread this essay and note all the loopholes in Kant's system from within a theological frame of mind. It grows increasingly clear theological morals are the missing element that is the cause of all the problems.

Another issue validating this conclusion is that Kant's ethics is limited to rational beings. Now we are forced to pry into the necessary constituents that make something "rational". The fields of evolutionary theory and biology are continually posing findings that go completely against the grain of what Kant would consider a "rational" being. Right off the bat, we have no choice but to doubt the possibility of an ethics based on pure reason. Are we to disregard wildlife, the bird with the broken wing, the slaughtered cow, and the dolphin population? Are we to disregard the eroding coastlines, the deteriorating ozone, and the polluted water? Are we to disregard the coma patient, the mentally retarded, the patient under anesthesia, and the fetus? The prescriptive form of ethics as applicable only to rational beings is a dangerous idea for both inorganic and organic life. The bifurcation of rational and non-rational poses an ontological gap even Kant's postulate that we should curb our actions according to their universal consequences cannot even fill.

As one of the first animal-rights activists, Schopenhauer was radically against the limiting of ethics to "rational beings" and brought to the light the coincidence that Christian morals fail to mention animals as worthy of ethical consideration. He quotes Kant as saying:

Man can have no duty to any beings except human…Cruelty to animals is contrary to man's duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their suffering, and thus a natural tendency that is very useful to morality in relation to other human beings is weakened.

In effect, man's moral obligation to animals merely reinforces the link to their real moral equals, other rational beings. Schopenhauer states, "Only for practice are we to have sympathy for animals, and they are, so to speak, the pathological phantom for the purpose of practicing sympathy for human beings." One would find no argument from the Pope, but luckily for Kant, PETA activists have failed to catch wind of this dangerous idea.

Now it is time to turn our attention from Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's ethics to his solution to these problems, and in effect, the role ethics should play in moral judgements. The case is clear, Kant's move to design the moral law in the a priori, formal, synthetical form renders the foundation of his ethics unstable and the principle unjust and ego motivated. Consequently, this is a wrong direction to look for purely moral deeds. Schopenhauer states:

Thus they are certainly very well adapted for echoing in lecture halls and for giving practice in 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.

The individual must have a far more intimate connection to the source of morality, one that is beyond semantic wordplay and concept juggling. He states:

On the contrary, such an incentive must be something that requires little reflection and even less abstraction and combination; something that, independent 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.

The necessary immediacy of the moral incentive causes Schopenhauer to adopt an Eastern point of view on ethics and therefore, he assumes a completely different path from his mentor.

Schopenhauer claims that when looking for purely moral deeds, we should examine the exceptions of ordinary action. The exceptions of conduct are not the horrible and evil actions but the acts out of genuinely moral incentives. If immoral actions were the exceptions then we would no longer need an ethics to limit our actions. Let us start with the ordinary actions.

The fact of the matter is that the incentive of man's action is primarily egoism, and therefore, man is by nature, egoistic, and self-involved.
He states, "The chief and fundamental incentive in man as in the animal is egoism, that is the craving for existence and well-being." The basis of egoism grows out of the realization that the "supremely important self" is merely an "accident"; death its annihilation and what was indubitably considered the "macrocosm" of existence is really only the "microcosm". Schopenhauer asserts that egoism grows out of the fear of death and the fear of death grows out of the misconception that death brings absolute annihilation. When actually, the will, the inner essence of existence, is metaphysical and indestructible; therefore, death takes only man's phenomenal representation while leaving the being-in-itself untouched.

By nature, all actions stem from self-preservation and self-interest and therefore egoism creates a giant divide between the self and the world. The reason he outlines is that the individual knows the self directly and knows the other indirectly as representation. "The only world everyone is actually acquainted with and knows, is carried about by him in his head as his representation, and is thus the center of the world." Schopenhauer explains that the more we think of our selves; the less we think of others. And the more we think of others the less we think of our selves.

Along these lines, one can not view the empirical world as the litmus test for genuinely moral acts because the empirical world reveals the deed and not the motive. For Schopenhauer, the deed on the surface may appear genuinely moral but upon deeper investigation, one is likely to find a self-interested motive. Often one has to make incursions into the great abyss to find the real motive underlying an action. The motive of an action has its roots in the will and therefore remains hidden to the empirical mind. This takes a trained eye and sinister mind; egoistic motives are concealed with the utmost skill and deliberation. The individual's state of mind has a lot to do with the ability to see the real state of affairs. Schopenhauer states:

In fact, it can reach such a pitch that to many a man, particularly in moments of melancholy and depression, the world may appear to be from the aesthetic standpoint, a cabinet of caricatures, from the intellectual, a madhouse, and from the moral, a den of sharks and swindlers. If such a dejected mood becomes permanent, misanthropy is the result.

Schopenhauer is different from most moralists and likens himself to Dante, in that at the very outset, he starts in the inferno and introduces egoism as the supreme motivating factor, rather than claim that man is inherently good natured and able to judge between moral and immoral. On the contrary, more often than not, the individual will choose the action that bringeth the greatest personal advantage. Half jokingly, Schopenhauer claims that when counting money the errors are always in favor of the person doing the counting. We unconsciously make decisions that would be to our own benefit.

From this angle, it appears that Kant was correct in designating laws to control such behavior. The moral law with help from the categorical imperative works to throw the reigns over and gain control of egoism; making it appear that we need the law to curb our natural inclinations. Well, as I revealed this is not as sturdy of a platform as it appears to be. But, after all isn't the point of ethics to tame the beast within. Moreover, what type of ethical system omits the question as to how one should act?

A philosophy such as Schopenhauer's in which man's character, i.e., personality, is not only a direct objectification of the will or thing-in-itself but also immutable, completely fixed, and unchangeable. This is why for Schopenhauer the question as to how we should
act is empty. We act according to as we are. "Our actions follow our essence" and therefore man can not choose to act differently in any given situation. "The crooked man is born with his wickedness as much as the serpent is with its poisonous fangs and glands; and he is as little to change his character as the serpent his fangs." If true, this claim is tragic in that it would render rehabilitation and behavioral modification useless. The addict would never maintain sobriety; the thief would always steal, and the liar would always lie. Schopenhauer goes as far as saying that we can learn how someone will act in the future just by observing his or her actions in any given situation. A fixed character and definite intellect make such predictability possible. Our movement and choice of action are as fixed as a clock.

Listen to one of Schopenhauer's more interesting and easily accessible proofs on the immutability of character. Each of us has had the unique experience of running into an old friend or acquaintance after not having seen them for a great length of time. One's ability to recognize the person after such a great time is owed to the fact that the individual's inner essence, in other words the thing-in-itself remains unchanged throughout all time. Undoubtedly, time takes its toll and often the individual's physical being undergoes many drastic changes, ultimately rendering physical recognition impossible. Therefore in such cases the individual is actually recognizing the other person's character (objectification of the will) and not the physical embodiment. The fixed character previously described plus a definite intellect make it possible to foretell how one will act in any given situation, unless counteracted by opposing motives; usually being those which impede against one's will.

However, this was only one side of the coin, the ordinary action motivated by egoism. The other side is the exception to the rule, pure genuine moral deeds. Schopenhauer poses the timeless question: Why is it that someone would risk his or her own life to save the life of a complete stranger? Joseph Campbell describes this best as a "one-pointed meditation, all duty, desires, wishes, and hopes, drop off" and " the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, that you and the other are one." In these quotes, Campbell was speaking directly about Schopenhauer's essay On the Basis of Morality. Of all Schopenhauer enthusiasts, he seems most at home in his ethics/metaphysics. This can probably be attributed to his wide scope of knowledge in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

There is one event in particular that I think captures the true spirit of Schopenhauer's ethics. Anecdotal evidence is often a valuable pedagogical tool when attempting to explain such profound ideas. This is not a run of the mill anecdote, and indeed, it is unique in many ways, in that it encompasses each of the major points of Schopenhauer's ethics, and in general, his philosophy. Schopenhauer was often in the habit of jotting down empirical observations that support his metaphysics and I am confident that he would find this story rich and fecund in innumerable ways.

In 1996, eight climbers were killed during an expedition to the top of Mt. Everest. An unforeseen storm swept through the mountain leaving many climbers stranded at Lhotse, one of the most dangerous parts of the ascent. This is the story of Beck Weathers. Beck was left for dead by the climbers that returned to rescue the remaining survivors. The triage team assumed the worst considering that he was stranded in the storm for over twenty-two hours, in a hypothermic coma, without oxygen, or other adequate survival gear. On the twenty-fourth hour, Beck struggled to his feet, left his gear behind, and willed his frozen body through the snow while fighting the minus 100° wind-chill. He states, "All I knew was that as long as my legs would run and I could stand up, I was going to move to the base camp, and if I fell down I was going to get up…I was going to keep moving until I got to the camp or walked off the face of the mountain."

Hours later, Beck walked into the base camp. It was imperative to get him down the mountain and to help; his hands were badly frostbitten and as a result, they would have to be amputated. During the following night, another storm swept through the mountain and once again Beck was left alone, and in a tent that was nearly blown away. At this point, his fellow climbers did not even know he was at the base camp because the rest of the team referred to him as "the dead guy in the tent". Much to their surprise, Beck willed himself through another night and gained the strength to request treatment. The frostbite was traveling up his arm and by morning reached just above the wrist. He was badly in need of a hospital.

The previous day, his wife and kids were informed that he was dead, only to receive a phone call the next day saying that he was alive but in critical condition. Mrs. Weathers called the local embassy in Katmandu and asked if they knew anyone willing to make a helicopter rescue. The woman on the phone said, "I know somebody who always thought they had a brave heart but never had a chance to know they had a brave heart". This man was her husband.

A helicopter rescue at 20,000 feet is extremely dangerous. The air is too thin for the blades to pick the helicopter off the ground and even if it does, the chance remains that it could fall at any time and suffer the same fate as the only previous helicopter rescue. Indeed, there was a slim chance the pilot would successfully reach the climbers at base camp.

Without hesitating, the pilot skillfully maneuvered the helicopter up the side of the mountain and then gently down on the helipad. However, due to weight restrictions, the pilot could only take one of the two survivors back down the mountain. After days of suffering, Beck Weathers surrendered his place on the helicopter to his fellow climber, without knowing if the pilot would make another trip and tempt the hands of fate one more time. Ten minutes later the pilot came back for Beck. He explains in a very emotion interview that the pilot did not perform such a heroic act to gain fame or out of duty, but rather, "because it was the right thing to do".

This story is not only a profound testimony of volition but also very philosophical rich. The metaphysical breakthrough that Joseph Campbell describes is exemplified by the heroism on both the part of Beck Weathers and the pilot. Beck Weathers' experience is particularly rich in that it demonstrates Schopenhauer's philosophy of will-to-live, the egoism of self-preservation, and also, the disintegration of the ego. Beforehand we discussed what Schopenhauer calls "antimoral incentives", an action out of self-interest and egoism. The reason for this is that the will, in itself, is characterized as the will-to-live. This property is inherent to our being and without restriction unless opposed by a more powerful motive. Beck Weathers' ability to withstand over forty-eight hours of excruciating cold, in one of the worst climbing disasters of all time, was made possible by this deeply rooted instinct to survive. This is a metaphysical drive and not mere a physiological response to terror. Beck fought tooth and nail to safe his life even though his body was shutting down, and his only source of intuition was an unexplained "awareness". This is the positive aspect of self-preservation.

The egoism of self-preservation was not a factor in Beck Weathers' struggle to safe his own life, but rather on the part of the other climbers that left him for dead. The fact of the matter is that Beck Weathers is a large man and undoubtedly it would have been a liability for the other climbers to carry him around at night during a storm while scaling the side of Mt. Everest. However, they did not just leave behind Beck but also one of the female climbers. How much could a ninety-pound female jeopardize the other climbers? The truth is that the other climbers all fled for their own life without considering the wounded. This is the negative aspect of self-preservation, the brief moments when we drop the veil of politeness and false refinement and fall back into the lockstep of our biology.

This takes us to the heart of the matter, the pilot's heroic rescue, and Beck Weathers' refusal to leave before his fellow climber. Both of these examples fit the criteria for a genuine moral action. Neither of these cases involved any sort of self-interest and were more along the line of what Schopenhauer calls, "better-conscience". It is the "breakthrough of a metaphysical realization": you and the other are part of the same unity, the same oneness. These cases are far from rare. Schopenhauer says they occur in small ways every day.

Early on in his writing Schopenhauer called such instances moments of better-consciousness, however as he progressed in his studies of Eastern religion, he tended to describe the metaphysical realization in terms of Vedic principles and Christian mysticism. The source of all morality is compassion. Out of suffering and pain comes man's capacity for loving-kindness. For Schopenhauer the foundation of morality rests on the Brahmanistic principle – tat-tvam-asi (thou art thou). The dissolution of the "I-not I" mentality comes about through the revelation that we are all the same will and matter therefore the other's suffering is as much his as it is my own. Hence, the expression – I feel your pain.

Given this starting point it is necessary that he chose compassion as the foundation of morality. The basic idea is that "compassion counteracts egoistic motives" and fills the gulf between I and Thou. The principle of individuation is for the moment abolished and the individual is temporarily released from its service to the will. For Schopenhauer any act involving the will is automatically an "egoistic transaction", so therefore for an action to have moral worth it must not include the will's participation. A stifling of the will and a heightening of the intellect allows for the possibility of a purely moral act.

Metaphysical speculation is the only means through which we come to explain cases of "voluntary justice" and philanthropy. Those rare cases of "voluntary justice" proceed from what the Brahmans call moksha or liberation from ignorance and false knowledge. For Schopenhauer as with the ancients, the cornerstone of morality is the identification of the self with the other. He goes on to say,

This event is certainly astonishing, indeed mysterious. In fact, it is the great mystery of ethics; it is the primary and original phenomenon of ethics, the boundary mark beyond which only metaphysical speculation can venture to step. In that event we see abolished the partition which, by the light of nature (as the old theologians call the faculty of reason) absolutely separates one being from another; the non-ego has to a certain extend become the ego.

Schopenhauer's conclusion that compassion is the cornerstone of all moral action is a major source of debate and misinterpretation. Nietzsche, Bryan Magee, and Christopher Janaway have all taken a shot at capturing the essence of Schopenhauer's ethics but have fallen short in many ways, especially Nietzsche. How much brighter, in this respect, Joseph Campbell shines above the rest.

In the twilight of Schopenhauer's life, he spoke of a time when a young philosopher will come along, fix together the few remaining pieces of his system, and create a complete Kantian-Schopenhauerian philosophy. Kant's ethics is going to be a nasty bump to get over when the fateful time comes for the young philosopher to join both of these giant metaphysical systems. This essay marks the starting point in granting Schopenhauer's wish and the process of fitting together the final pieces.


Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton. New

York: Harper Books, 1964.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Basis of Morality. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. Oxford: Berghahn

Books, 1995.


  1. This was well done and beautifully written.It has certainly helped me better grasp and fill the holes in my understanding of Schopenhauer's criticism of Kant's Ethics. The basis of morality is such a beautiful work that is surprising ("the pessimist" writing about compassion), yet so fitting to Schopenhauer. I appreciated all the personal examples you included and I must commend your ability to lend knowledge through your writing. Truly something to cherish.

  2. This is a well written article. I have a good grasp on Brahmanical Advaita philosophy. If you need to colloborate, please let me know.