22. Freedom and the Boundary of Morals
Near the end of the previous lecture I left you in a rather uncomfortable position. Do you remember? You were stuck in Lion Rock Tunnel, inside a bus being driven by a man who claimed that things just "happen", without being caused by anything. What should you do in such a situation? Instead of answering this question directly, I want to change the story a little bit. Let's imagine that when you ask the bus driver why he stopped the bus, instead of saying "I didn't ...", he pulls out a gun and asks you to give him all your money and leave the bus, or he will shoot. You would probably obey his demands. But after the bus drove away, as you walk through the tunnel, you would probably become quite upset at what that man had done to you. In fact, most of us would probably report his action to the police as soon as possible, accusing him of doing something wrong.
What would be the rational basis of our claim in such a case? Why would we judge that man's action to be morally wrong? In philosophy these kinds of questions are called "ethical". Ethical questions are about how we should and should not act. There are many, many ethical questions-so many that we cannot even begin in this class to explore the different kinds of ethical questions, to say nothing of specific questions about the rightness or wrongness of particular acts. Ethical questions are like the many small twigs on the end of a tree branch: they are very important, for on them grow the leaves and the fruit of the tree; yet there are so many that any one of them could be removed without significantly changing the appearance or the health of the tree.
There is, however, a similar kind of philosophical question that is more weighty than an ethical question. All ethical questions are based on certain fundamental moral principles, just as all leafy twigs are held up by one of the larger branches of the tree. An awareness of the questions related to these principles is fundamental if we wish to understand the tree of philosophy. At one time the term "moral philosophy" was used to refer to this entire branch (including the twigs). But this term is not used very often nowadays. The entire branch of philosophy concerned with establishing the rational foundations for moral actions is now more often referred to simply as "ethics", with "applied ethics" referring to the twigs and "meta-ethics" referring to the main part of the branch. In order to avoid confusion, though, I think it is better to use "ethics" to refer to the whole "science" (in the loose sense of this word) of making moral decisions, and reserve the term "moral philosophy" for the basic underlying principles.
As such, "moral philosophy" is the branch of the tree of philosophy that begins by asking the most basic questions about morality, such as: Are human beings free? How can we distinguish between good and evil? and How is ethics itself possible? Of course, the term "moral philosophy" does not refer to a "good way of doing philosophy", as opposed to a bad, "immoral" philosophy. So-called "moral philosophers" can be just as immoral in their daily lives as anyone else! Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of moral philosophy is not just to understand what goodness is, but to use it to help us become better persons. And, just as Jonathan Seagull learned to fly much faster once he understood flying, so also understanding the moral foundations of ethical decisions should help us make wiser choices in our daily lives.
One of the most influential moral philosophies was proposed by Immanuel Kant. Kant's first Critique helped us in Part One to reach some fundamental insights about the nature of metaphysics, so we shall devote most of today's session to an examination of his second Critique, where he suggests a very interesting way of coping with our ignorance of ultimate reality. Whereas the Critique of Pure Reason adopts a "theoretical" standpoint to demonstrate how space, time, and the categories form an absolutely necessary (i.e., synthetic a priori) boundary line for human experience (and therefore make possible our empirical knowledge of phenomenal objects), the Critique of Practical Reason, as we shall see (cf. Figures III.4, III.6, and IV.4), adopts a "practical" standpoint to demonstrate how freedom and the moral law form an absolutely necessary boundary line for moral action (and therefore make possible our moral judgment of noumenal objects). In simpler terms, we can describe this distinction by saying Kant developed in these books two distinct ways of looking at the world (i.e., two "standpoints"): he adopts the standpoint of the head in the first Critique and that of the belly in the second Critique (cf. Figures II.8 and III.4).
Viewing two sets of opposing ideas as representatives of two standpoints can often help us see how both can be true, even though they appear at first to be contradictory. A simple example will help to clarify this point. Most of you have probably seen at some point one of the many pictures used by psychologists to test the way our mind perceives objects. A picture is drawn that can represent two completely different objects, depending on how it is perceived. For example, the picture given
in Figure VIII.1, looks like a goblet if we focus on the dark area in the center. Yet if we look at the edges, we suddenly see two faces facing each other. Which answer is correct? Of course, both are correct, each in its own way. The same is often true in philosophy, whenever there are two apparently contradictory answers to the same question, if it turns out that each answer approaches the question in a different way, or with a different end in view.
In Lecture 9 we saw how Kant argued that, in the process of gaining theoretical knowledge, various
"ideas" naturally arise in the mind of anyone who thinks rationally about their own experience: among these the most important are the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality (see CPR 29). But he posed a problem in regard to these ideas; for, if Kant is right, we are necessarily ignorant of the reality each of these ideas points to. This "noumenal" reality, he claimed, is beyond the boundary of our possible knowledge. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to assume, as do some interpreters, that Kant had a skeptical view of these ideas. On the contrary, one of his reasons for denying the possibility of our having knowledge of the ideas was to insure that it would be impossible for anyone to disprove their reality. No one can prove that our ideas of God, freedom, and immortality are mere illusions, because in order to do so, a person would need to have knowledge of ultimate reality; and this, according to Kant, is impossible. Hence, by denying "knowledge" in this way, Kant left open a space for "faith" in these ideas (29)-though we still need to find good reasons for adopting such faith, in the face of our theoretical ignorance. By examining in the second Critique the necessary conditions for bringing about a moral world, as we struggle with our desires (the "belly"), Kant attempted to provide such reasons, on the grounds that the ideas themselves actually point us beyond the realm of theory, to the realm of practice.
The first necessary condition for the possibility of moral action is freedom. Freedom, Kant argued, is the one and only "given fact" of practical reason. By adopting the practical standpoint, we can actually break through the boundaries of space and time (the limitations of our "sensibility") and replace them with freedom. But this freedom does not leave us lost in a boundless world of unlimited confusion; rather, freedom itself functions as a new kind of limitation. Whereas space and time are necessary limits that anything we can know must appear within, freedom is the necessary limit that any moral action must conform to. The former is the world-limitation imposed on our heads so we can know the truth; the latter is the self-limitation imposed on our bellies so we can do the good. Though these two standpoints lead us in opposite directions, we need not view them as irreconcilably contradictory, provided we recognize that they refer to fundamentally different aspects of human life.
Kant never claimed he could prove human beings are free; on the contrary, the first Critique demonstrates why such a proof is impossible. Instead, his argument is that we must presuppose freedom in order to enter the realm of morality, just as we must presuppose space and time in order to enter the realm of knowledge. In both cases we are faced with a brute fact that cannot even be questioned without radically changing (or perhaps even undermining) our human experience. Although Kant would not have put it in this way, we could therefore say these "facts" function like complementary myths for anyone in the modern world who wants to interpret their experience in terms of knowledge or moral action.
If freedom in the second Critique corresponds to space and time in the first, what corresponds to the categories? The logical aspect of the boundary of morals Kant called the "moral law", or "categorical imperative". All maxims (i.e., subjective rules of action) must conform to this law to qualify as moral. By "categorical" Kant meant that this imperative makes an unconditional demand. "Hypothetical" imperatives, by contrast, are ones with an "if" attached. If I say to you "Please be quiet when I am in the room", then my command is hypothetical, because you are not required to be quiet if I am not in the room. A command such as "Do not tell lies", by contrast, is normally regarded as unconditional. I doubt if your mother ever said to you "Do not tell lies, unless it makes you feel good"! That is because commands such as telling the truth are usually regarded as duties. A "duty", according to Kant, is an action performed out of respect for the moral law-i.e., in obedience to one's conscience, rather than just following the desires or "inclinations" of one's belly.
Kant believed he could determine a formula that would apply to all moral action. In the end he actually proposed three distinct criteria for (or formulations of) the categorical imperative. The first states that an action is moral only if its maxim is universalizable: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (FMM 421). This does not mean everyone will actually agree with your maxim, but only that everyone ought to agree. The second requires us to respect human persons: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only" (429). The third requires that our maxim must be autonomous (i.e., self-legislated): since "every rational creature [makes] universal law", a moral maxim must be "consistent with the universal lawgiving of will" (431). Let's test these necessary criteria, especially the first, by applying them to an example.
If I cheat on an exam and someone asks me "Did you cheat on that exam?", then I am faced with a moral choice. I can either lie, and hope nobody discovers the truth, or I can tell the truth and suffer the consequences. Although lying in such a case might make me happier, Kant thought this choice would be morally wrong, because it would be based on a maxim on that could never become a universal law. In the former case my maxim might be "It is acceptable to tell a lie, if it will get me out of a difficult situation", whereas in the latter case my maxim would be "Never tell a lie". Kant freely admitted it is possible to will (i.e., want to tell)a particular lie, but he argued it would be irrational to will "a universal law to lie": in such a case "my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law" (FMM 403). In other words, if we imagine a world where it would be acceptable for everyone to lie whenever it would make them happy, the primary function of language (i.e., its ability to convey truth) would be undermined. Moreover, a lie also breaks the second and third criteria: it uses another human being, neglecting their rational capacity, solely in order to make oneself happy. Because lying requires us to break a universalizable law (and therefore also to disrespect human rationality), telling a lie is always morally wrong, no matter how happy a lie might make us feel.
Kant gave other examples, relating to suicide, laziness, and apathy (see FMM 421-424); but for our purposes it will suffice to point out the function Kant's criteria for judging moral actions are supposed to fulfill. According to Kant, we do not have to think consciously about the categorical imperative's three formulations each time we face a moral dilemma; rather, their function is to enable philosophers to locate truly moral issues and then define an objectively valid boundary line between morally good and evil actions. The boundary line is objective because it is true for everyone (i.e., universal) and because it uses an objectively existing reality (i.e., humanity) as a basis for judgment.
When the moral law tells us to do something, performing that action makes us worthy of praise only if our choice is not also meant to satisfy one of our inclinations-i.e., only if our reason for doing it is unrelated to satisfying our desires. Thus, Kant's moral philosophy can be restated as follows: an action can be morally good or bad only if it is done freely and out respect for the moral law rather than out of our inclination to fulfill our own desire for happiness. Kant devoted much attention to the contrast between following inclinations and duty. Of course, sometimes a single action can both satisfy the moral law and fulfill our inclination to be happy. But whenever this is not possible, we must choose to say "No!" to our own happiness. Accordingly, we can express the basic command of the categorical imperative as: "Respect the moral law!" or "Follow your conscience as an objective principle!" or simply, "Do your duty!"
This kind of moral theory is sometimes called "deontology" and is traditionally contrasted with "utilitarianism". The latter view was defended by J.S. Mill (1806-1873), an English philosopher who argued that an action is good only if it maximizes human happiness. Kant regarded the outcome of an action as less important than the inner motivation of the person who performs the action. This is why he said at one point that nothing can "be called good without qualification except a good will" (FMM 392); this means there is no such thing as an absolutely good action, yet there is such a thing as an absolutely good will-namely, a will that bases its maxims on the moral law. For Kant, the proper order for viewing morality is from the inside to the outside. For Mill, by contrast, the outer result of an action is far more important than the motivation behind it: the best action is the one that makes the most people happy. This means, of course, that Mill would condone lying whenever it had sufficient "utility" (i.e., usefulness) to help more people than it harmed. Likewise, the bus driver's theft might turn out to be morally acceptable, if, for example, he needed your money to feed his hungry children, whereas you were just going to use it to buy some philosophy books for your own selfish pleasure. However, if we are to believe Kant, such a world would be an irrational world-a world without any boundaries-and would ultimately destroy itself. Instead of examining more closely this long-standing debate between deontology and utilitarianism, let us continue our discussion of Kant's version of deontology by looking at some of its further implications.
In order for morality to be truly rational, Kant thought moral action must be capable of fulfilling its purpose: to bring into being the highest possible good. Just how this "summum bonum" ought to be defined is, however, a question that has been debated among philosophers since ancient times. The Stoics believed the highest good is virtue, and that a virtuous life ought to be pursued without any regard for happiness. The Epicureans, by contrast, thought the highest good is to fulfill one's pleasures, and therefore pursue happiness. This difference can be traced back to the difference between Plato, with his focus on the ideal of goodness, and Aristotle, with his concern for the experience of real happiness. It may also appear at first to correspond to the distinction between Kant's deontology and Mill's utilitarianism. However, Kant rejected this interpretation of the implications of his own moral philosophy.
Kant argued that the best conception of the highest good must include both virtue and happiness. Happiness without virtue would be unjust; virtue without happiness would not be worth the effort. Therefore Kant explained the highest good as the picture of an ideal world where each person is rewarded for their virtue with a proportional level of happiness. In other words, if your level of virtue reaches eight on a scale of one to ten and mine only reaches seven, then you should be rewarded with 80% happiness, whereas I should be rewarded with 70% happiness. Any other conception of the ultimate purpose of moral action would make morality irrational, inasmuch as morality would then aim at something less than perfect goodness and justice.
Kant has often been criticized for introducing happiness into his theory at this late stage: how could he include happiness in the highest good when he had already defined virtue in terms of obeying duty rather than happiness? But this criticism is based on a misunderstanding. By including happiness in the highest good Kant was not suddenly changing his mind and saying that happiness can be the motivation for our action after all. Rather, we must distinguish between happiness as an original motive and happiness as a rational hope. The reality of human life, according to Kant, is that right action often requires us to do something we know will make us less happy (such as resisting the temptation to steal someone else's money, to lie in order protect our reputation, etc.); yet at the same time our reason tells us that in the end the person who chooses to obey the moral law is more worthy to be happy than the person who chooses to pursue happiness as an end in itself.
This presents a problem that must be solved if morality is to be rational: in the world as we know it, virtuous people often are not rewarded with happiness. How then can we conceive of the highest good as possible? Kant argued that practical reason requires us to "postulate" (i.e., put forward as a necessary assumption) the reality of life after death and the existence of God. Unlike freedom, these postulates play no role in making an action moral; instead, they help us understand the rational purpose of morality itself. Without believing in another life and in a holy God governing that life, we may well be able to act morally, but we will not be able to explain how the highest good could ever be realized. This is Kant's famous "moral argument" for the existence of God. He never claimed it could give us real knowledge of God's existence; but he did argue that it provides the best practical reason for believing in God. Essentially, his argument is that anyone who acts morally and believes such action is rational is acting as if God exists, whether or not they actually believe in God. In other words, Kant claimed we must either believe in God or else reject one of the following propositions: (1) moral action is good; (2) morality is rational; (3) the highest good combines virtue with proportional happiness.
Aside from providing this "practical proof" of God's existence, Kant's moral philosophy made several other important contributions. For instance, as we have seen, it established a clearly defined boundary between moral and non-moral actions. An action is moral only if it is done freely (i.e., without depending on our own happiness) and in accordance with the moral law (i.e., based on a universalizable maxim). These are necessary conditions that must be true for anyone who wishes to act morally, so they define an absolute set of guidelines for our inner motivation, just as space, time, and the categories define an absolute set of guidelines for understanding the outer world. We can picture the opposition between Kant's two fundamental standpoints as follows:
(a) The bounds of knowledge (b) The bounds of action
A potential problem arises out of Kant's moral philosophy when it is viewed together with his theoretical philosophy (as in Figure VIII.2), for it sets up an apparently irresolvable tension between freedom and nature. How can we be free on the one hand (when considering the foundations of moral action), yet determined by laws such as the law of causality on the other hand (when considering the foundations of empirical knowledge)? Kant tried to answer such questions by showing how, in some aspects of human experience, the opposition between freedom and nature, between practical and theoretical reason, is actually overcome. In Part Four we shall examine the two main ways he did this: Lecture 29 will deal with the theory of beauty he defended in the third Critique; Lectures 32 and 33 will then discuss his most effective way of transcending this opposition-and at the same time his best answer to the question "What may I hope?" (see Figure III.6)-his theory of religion. For religion provides us with the only way of explaining how the highest good can be realized; hence it is the area of human experience that Kant believed best exemplifies the way nature and freedom can work together for the good of the human race.
Although Kant did write several books in the attempt to demonstrate that there is a realm of human experience that synthesizes freedom and nature, the strict opposition between these two realms did not bother him as much as it has bothered many of his critics. For his own tendency was not to regard these two realms as posing an absolute contradiction that needs to be explained away, but to affirm the opposition as an essential characteristic of being human. He regarded it as an opposition between two human perspectives, two ways of looking at the same thing (see Figure VIII.1), that necessarily arise together and to a large extent -like the opposition between "hot" and "cold", or "large" and "small"-depend on each other for their very existence. Only by keeping this in mind can we fully appreciate the respectful way he talks about this opposition in his well-known Conclusion to the second Critique:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me [i.e., nature] and the moral law within me [i.e., freedom]. I do not merely conjecture them and seek them as though obscured in darkness or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon: I see them before me, and I associate them directly with the consciousness of my own existence. (CPrR 161-162)
23. Transvaluation: A Moral Breakthrough?
We saw last time how Kant tried to intensify the rational significance of acting morally by arguing that morality is based on an internal
The Contrast betweenSubjective andObjectiveEnds
sense of freedom and moral duty. His belief in a universally valid "voice" inside us, telling each person the difference between right and wrong, may seem odd to anyone who has been thoroughly immersed in the relativism that tends to dominate modern western culture, where no clear distinction is drawn between right and wrong. As a quick review of Kant's moral philosophy, and in order to point up some of the differences between his view that moral ends (or aims) are "objective" and the common view that they are all "subjective", I have summarized some of the main differences in Figure VIII.3. Ever since Kant proposed his radical distinction between the standpoints of moral action and empirical knowledge, philosophers have been attempting various ways of overcoming the limitations he proposed. (More often than not, the ways Kant himself tried to reconcile these two realms have, unfortunately, been completely ignored.) In this lecture we shall examine the main ideas of one such philosopher, a man who foresaw many of the changes in ways of thinking and acting that have occurred in the twentieth century and who, in some respects at least, was responsible for them; for he started, as it were, a new cycle in the history of western philosophy (cf. Figure III.3).
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher who believed the traditional values of the society of his day had cut religion and philosophy-and indeed, humanity itself-from their proper roots. As a response to the impending disaster he saw looming on the horizon, he called for a thoroughgoing "transvaluation of values"-that is, a complete rethinking of the whole philosophical and religious tradition that produced those traditional values. The theories he developed in carrying out this task set up something like a new myth, replacing the myth of dispassionate rationality, established by Socrates and popularized by Plato, with a myth of passionate irrationality, whose implications are only now beginning to be understood. (Nietzsche claimed, incidentally, that his philosophy would not be fully understood until two hundred years after it was written.) The problem with understanding his ideas is that he intentionally wrote in an unsystematic way; constructing systems he saw as part of the old set of values. Not only do some of his ideas contradict his other ideas, but many of his books do not even pretend to develop a single, well-argued set of ideas. Rather, they contain collections of diverse ideas, often expressed in the fragmented form of "aphorisms". It is as if Nietzsche simply wrote a bunch of insight papers, then published them whenever he had enough to make a book! He viewed himself more as a poet, a psychologist, or even a prophet than as a philosopher in any conventional sense. Nevertheless, many of his insights are directly addressed to philosophical issues; so a summary of his main ideas should enable us to appreciate his significance for the philosophical tradition.
Nietzsche himself (whose name, by the way, is pronounced as if it were spelled "Neecha") was the son of a Lutheran pastor. He was so intelligent that he finished his formal education early and became a professor of classics at the University of Basel when he was only 24. Many of his ideas during this period developed through a brief but intense friendship with the musician, Richard Wagner. After teaching for ten years, however, he became disillusioned with the game of academia and retired to a hut in the mountains, where he spent the next ten years of his life as a recluse, writing some of the most passionate and challenging books in the history of western philosophy.
Nietzsche's transvaluation of values, a focal point uniting all his other ideas, was primarily an attempt to break through the traditional understanding of the boundaries that limit our moral and intellectual life, establishing in its place a new set of higher values. The old values, as represented especially by Christianity and the philosophical tradition culminating in Kant, are "life-denying", he argued; they must therefore be replaced by "life-affirming" values, the best examples being found in the pagan religions and philosophies of ancient Greece. Science, with its narrow field of vision, interpreting the world as basically dead, is not solely responsible for this faulty world view. For the traditional Christian morals accepted by the vast majority of the western world, and defended in Kant's philosophy, also support notions such as love, humility, and self-sacrifice; and such values, according to Nietzsche, have killed the human spirit itself, and caused us to forget how to dance.
Looking back to ancient Greek mythology, Nietzsche chose names for these two types of outlook on life: the traditional, life-denying outlook he called "Apollonian" (after the God of the sun, named "Apollo"), while the life-affirming outlook Nietzsche hoped to put in its place he called "Dionysian" (after the God of wine, named "Dionysius"). Whereas the Apollonian outlook is conscious, rational, and calm, the Dionysian is unconscious, irrational, and passionate. The former gives rise to a "slave morality" that causes people to adopt a "herd mentality" and view themselves as determined by a fixed boundary line defining good and evil; in politics this attitude gives rise to democracy (rule by the masses), thus encouraging everyone to be alike in mediocrity. By contrast, the latter gives rise to a "master morality" that causes people to adopt a "hero mentality" and view themselves as free to break out of the conventional ways of interpreting right and wrong; in politics this attitude gives rise to aristocracy (rule by a few people), thus encouraging the greatness of the human spirit to be expressed.
In these and other ways the Dionysian outlook enables us to go "beyond good and evil" and live on a higher plane, characterized by what Nietzsche called "the will to power". The will to power is a form of radical freedom that solves the problem posed by Kant's distinction between nature and freedom by demolishing both sets of boundary lines:
"we must...posit hypothetically the causality of the will as the only causality." We can truly master ourselves, according to Nietzsche, only by courageously taking hold of a freedom that refuses to be enclosed within any boundary, for only in so doing can we affirm life as it actually is. Following these guidelines, we can picture Nietzsche's transvaluation of values with the map shown in Figure VIII.4.
The problem Nietzsche faced was that the society of his day was thoroughly entrenched in the Apollonian way of thinking. Hence, his own attempt to balance this with a Dionysian mes-
Figure VIII.4: Nietzsche's Transvaluation of Values
sage inevitably came across as madness. This is at least one of the points of Nietzsche's famous story of the madman in the market place:
Have you not heard as yet of that mad-man who on one bright forenoon lit a lantern, ran out into the market-place and cried out again and again, "I seek God! I seek God! -Because there were standing about just at that time many who did not believe in God, the mad-man was the occasion of great merriment. Has God been lost? said one of them. Or is He hiding himself? Is He afraid of us? Has He boarded a ship? Has He emigrated? Thus they cried and laughed.
But the mad-man pierced them with his glance: "Whither has God gone?" he cried; "I am going to tell you. We have killed Him-you and I! We all are His murderers. But how have we accomplished this? How have we been able to empty the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe off the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither does the earth now move? Whither do we ourselves move?
"Are we not groping our way in an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of the empty spaces. Has it not become colder? Is there not night and ever more night? How do we manage to console ourselves, we master-assassins? Who is going to wipe the blood off our hands? Must not we ourselves become gods to make ourselves worthy of such a deed? (JW 125)
This famous passage not only states the problem, that our lifeless, Apollonian personalities have killed God, it also gives a clue as to Nietzsche's solution. The only beings capable of killing God are those who can themselves become gods. Out of this arose Nietzsche's theory of Superman.
When Nietzsche talked about people transcending their themselves and becoming §bermensch (the German word usually translated as "Superman", but also sometimes as "overman"), he was not thinking of the strange man in the red suit who flies around "faster than a speeding bullet" fighting the powers of crime and defending the American Way! On the contrary, the imaginary hero from Krypton first appeared shortly after Nietzsche died and bears little similarity to Nietzsche's ideal. The Superman whose coming Nietzsche proclaimed was far more important, for he is the very purpose of the earth. Thus, the "future hope for man" lies entirely in the emergence of this powerful person from the otherwise hopelessly lost conditions of modern society: whereas ordinary people are all like "polluted streams", "we need to become oceans". In order to bring on the Dionysian outlook of the Superman, we must, for example, love our fate (called "amor fati" by Nietzsche) so thoroughly that we could will each and every moment of our life to be endlessly repeated in a continuous cycle of "eternal recurrence".
Nietzsche's best description of this ideal Superman, and of how his character is to emerge, comes in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1884). The Prologue to this book tells a story about a man named Zarathustra (actually the name of the founder of the ancient Persian religion called Zoroastrianism), who lived alone in the mountains for ten years. One day he meets an "old saint in the forest" and is surprised to find that this man "hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!" Zarathustra then goes to the market-place of the nearest town, where many people are assembled to watch a tight-rope walker whose performance is about to begin, and he begins to preach to them, saying:
I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? ...
What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm....
Lo, I teach you the Superman!
The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!
I conjure you, my brethren, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.
Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!
Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth! ...
Verily, a polluted stream is man. One must be a sea, to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure.
Lo, I teach you the Superman: he is that sea; in him can your greatest contempt be submerged. (TSZ Prologue ?)
Someone in the crowd, getting impatient with Zarathustra's strange words, then asks to be shown this "rope-dancer" (meaning the Superman). Zarathustra responds by saying: "Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman-a rope over an abyss." After suggesting with this metaphor the picture of humanity shown in Figure VIII.5, Nietzsche told how, after another speech by Zarathustra, the tight-rope walker then
Figure VIII.5: Nietzsche's Tight-Rope
started his act, but was disturbed by someone else on the rope, who, "like a buffoon", caused the tight-rope walker to fall to the ground. The story ends by telling how Zarathustra helps the injured and dying man. Although we do not have time to discuss the interpretation of this story in detail, I should at least add that in the first section of the book itself, Nietzsche told a story about "three metamorphoses": a spirit is transformed into a camel, the camel into a lion, and the lion into a child. If we treat this as symbolizing three stages in the development of humanity, it could be used to argue that for Nietzsche the Dionysian ("lion") outlook was not to be part of the ideal man, but was merely a necessary compensation for the over-rational bias of the contemporary Apollonian ("camel") outlook. The ultimate ideal of Nietzsche may well have been the person who transcends the distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, by adopting neither the servant-based outlook of a camel nor the power-based outlook of a lion, but the instinct-based outlook of a child.
In any case, the final aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy I shall present to you today is his theory of perspectivism. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to use the word "perspective" as a technical term in his philosophizing. And this, as you may have noticed, is a practice I believe can be of utmost value to the philosopher. However, for Nietzsche, the implication of saying that everything we "know" is limited to some perspective is that there are actually no facts, only interpretations. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that everything is false; in other words, language falsifies reality. This view is similar in some respects to both Kant and Wittgenstein, as well as to the ideas of many other philosophers who wished to distinguish between what is and what we can say about what is. Unlike Kant, but like Wittgenstein, he was highly critical of all metaphysical theories (especially dualism). For the very idea of a "true world" beyond this one is, he believed, the root of all life-denying outlooks. This radical rejection of all truth, metaphysical and otherwise, is an aspect of what is often called "nihilism". For the true nihilist there are no real moral limitations whatsoever: all values can be rejected as meaningless. Understood in this way, there is some debate as to whether or not Nietzsche, whose ultimate goal was to reach a Higher Value (namely, Superman), ought to be called a "nihilist" in the strict sense.
What are we to conclude, then, about Nietzsche's philosophy? How are we to respond to such a passionate plea for a moral breakthrough? How can we cope with his scathing criticisms of religion and the modern scientific world view? Has man ironically "killedGod" with the very rationality that virtually all philosophers from Socrates to Kant believed can point us beyond ourselves to that God? Can we truly become God through the force of our own will? Surely these and the many other questions raised by Nietzsche's philosophy cannot be answered in any satisfactory way in this introductory course. However, I would like to point out that, above all else, Nietzsche's writing is calculated to evoke some response. Nietzsche would regard his task as a success if his ideas have shocked us into rethinking our entire system of values and beliefs. The last thing he ever wanted was to found a new "school" of thinking, called "Nietzschean philosophy"!
With this in mind, I have several comments to make about Nietzsche's ideas. First, the mythical character of his philosophy should be clear by the very fact that he refused to see or accept any boundaries. Nietzsche's world was a world with no limits-or at least, the limits it had were arbitrary, and could not be used to determine the truth. (This is partly due to the fact that he had no clear recognition of the difference between analytic and synthetic logic.) This is why I have suggested we regard his philosophy as having started a new revolution in the cycle of western philosophy (cf. Figure III.3), replacing Plato's Socrates as the foundation for a new philosophical age, often called "post-modernism". We shall examine that the latter movement in more detail in Lecture 24.
Another interesting point is that the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche is comparable in some ways to the relationship in ancient Chinese philosophy between Confucius and Chuang Tzu. The former in each case developed a massive philosophical system revolving around the principle of inwardly legislated moral action, whereas the latter in each case tried to break through the typically rigid ways of interpreting that system, by living a wanderer's life and urging us all to be guided by the passionate "Way" that is in some sense the essence of life itself. Unfortunately, we do not have time to pursue this parallel relationship in the context of this class. So it will suffice merely to note that, like Nietzsche, Chuang Tzu's radical destruction of traditional values often makes him look like a nihilist; yet we can avoid this error by keeping in mind that the Way serves as an ineffable, but nonetheless real limit for human action.
At this point we may want to ask: which is truly life-denying, Nietzsche's interpretation of man as either purely Apollonian or purely Dionysian, or a confession of the inevitable tension between these two aspects of human nature (as in Kant)? The person who crosses the tight-rope and is successfully transformed into Superman (i.e., into the Dionysian hero) will be just as one-sided as the one who sits back and remains satisfied to be a mere animal (i.e., part of the Apollonian herd). In either case, if we try to regard life in terms of either one of these outlooks on its own, we will surely end up denying life: this can be visually represented by noting that the tight-rope of humanity in Figure VIII.5 would fall to the ground if either building supporting it were to be taken away. This surely suggests that the only truly life-affirming view is the one that regards humanity as both Apollonian and Dionysian. Whether the tension be between love and passion, consciousness and unconsciousness, knowledge and ignorance, or any other pair of Nietzschean opposites, it is in each case the tension itself that keeps us alive. Indeed, this is simultaneously the greatness and the tragedy of human life: that we are capable of taking great risks in the pursuit of high ideals; and yet, that we cannot reach those ideals without losing our very life. And the good life, just as the good tight-rope walker, will be the one that exhibits the best balance (e.g., by integrating the opposites).
Finally, I should mention that, for the last eleven years of his life, Nietzsche was insane. Trying to explain what caused his insanity can only be a matter of conjecture. Some believe it was the result of a physical illness. Others interpret his suffering as that of a true prophet, as if he were symbolically accepting such a punishment on behalf of those who could not see mankind's tendency toward self-destruction so clearly. Still others regard his final fate as a natural outcome of his philosophical outlook. In the latter case his example could certainly serve as a warning to anyone who wishes to experiment with a philosophy cut off from its natural roots in metaphysics. In any case, because of her brother's insanity, Nietzsche's sister ended up taking charge over the publication of his writings and the promotion of his ideas. Unfortunately, she perverted his ideas in such a way that Hitler was able to use what looked like Nietzsche's ideas as a philosophical support for his own fascist political regime. Political philosophy will, in fact, be the focus of next week's lectures. But we can end today by noting that the use Hitler (and others) made of Nietzsche is now generally recognized to be a gross misrepresentation. For Nietzsche was no anti-Semitic fascist, but truly a philosopher unto himself-a new Socrates (or anti-Socrates) if ever there was one.
Probably the most common myth to be assumed (and sometimes defended with arguments) in the insight papers written by my past students has been the view known as relativism. Students frequently claim there is nothing absolute in the world, though few think very deeply about the implications of such a position. The reasons typically cited are that actions can be right in one situation yet wrong in another situation, or that propositions can be true in one context yet false in another, or that a physical feature regarded as beautiful in one culture may be ugly in another culture. As these examples illustrate, the issue of relativism concerns not only moral philosophy, but virtually all aspects of applied philosophy. Wherever a boundary has to be drawn and a wise choice made as to what falls inside the boundary and what should remain outside, the question of whether or not the boundary is "absolute" (i.e., fixed, or true in every respect, without considering context or individual differences) eventually arises. In ordinary life, most boundary issues are obviously relative. For example, there is no absolute principle to tell you whether or where to erect a fence between your property and your neighbor's; such a decision depends on a variety of "relative" factors, such as what laws apply to the district where you live, what kind of relationship you have with your neighbor, how you feel about fences, etc.
The philosophical question concerning relativism is not whether anything is relative; that is obviously true. Rather, the question is whether everything is relative, or whether, by contrast, some fundamental principles might be absolute. And nowhere is this question more important than in moral philosophy. This week we have seen that the twentieth century's tendency toward relativism derived to a large extent from (or at least, was foreseen by) Nietzsche. But its roots go way back. As early as 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote in Chapter 13 of his book, Leviathan, that "moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind; which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men, are different." The distinction between good and evil is thus regarded as purely a matter of social custom, not rooted in any absolute moral principles. Furthermore, Hume argued that "ought" statements cannot be justified by appealing to "is" statements (THN 469-470). For example, just because abortion is a common practice nowadays does not mean that it ought to be regarded as "right". This gap between the "is" and the "ought" prevents moral "science" from ever reaching the level of objectivity that natural science aims to obtain. Indeed, Hume inferred from the absence of any empirical justification for moral beliefs that they are merely a matter of custom or habit (cf. Lecture 21)-a view that leads directly to extreme forms of relativism.
Strict relativism, the view that no opinion is ultimately any better than any others, must be clearly distinguished from "perspectivism". For Nietzsche, as we have seen, the latter means that everything is false. Yet, if we really take this seriously, we are left with a tree without roots-and perhaps even without a trunk! Throughout this course I am defending a radically different version of perspectivism. Instead of arguing from the perspectival nature of all knowledge (as demonstrated by Kant) to the falseness of all language, we can regard each well-defined perspective as an opportunity to gain truth within boundaries. Thus, for example, I have defended a philosophy of perspective wherein truth does exist, but can be known as such only within the boundary of a distinct perspective. In this way we can say truth is relative, without saying it all boils down to personal opinions: once we realize that the love of wisdom requires first and foremost a search for the proper perspective for interpreting ideas such as truth and goodness, then and only then will we be able to affirm that opinions (sometimes even the majority opinion) can be wrong! Rather than saying, with Nietzsche, that all interpretations of the world are false, we can then affirm that many of them can be true. Indeed, even when two views appear to conflict with each other, they may both be right, if they are assuming different perspectives.
Of the current movements in western philosophy that look back to Nietzsche as the father of the "post-modern" era, "deconstructionism" is one of the most influential. Deconstructionism originated as a method of interpreting literary texts (cf. Lecture 18), but has now grown into a distinct philosophical school, based on the assumption that the world has no "deep structure" whatsoever, so that the search for the foundations of anything is necessarily futile and counterproductive. I think the life of this movement will be short-lived, because, like logical positivism (cf. Lecture 16), it attempts the impossible task of growing a tree without roots. While rightly claiming that the belief in metaphysical foundations is all too often used to close off the possibility of alternative explanations, and can therefore be misused as a tool of oppression, deconstructionists themselves, in effect, close off the possibility for any communication whatsoever, by their belief that there is no common ground we can all stand on. Because they focus much of their attention on interpreting past classical texts, many of their legitimate insights can be found in a less extreme form in the writings of more conventional philosophers. Nevertheless, let's look at a few of the ideas defended by one of the most influential deconstructionists.
Jacques Derrida (1930-) is an Algerian-born scholar who has spent most of his professional life living and writing in Paris. He attracted much attention during the last one-third of the twentieth century, thanks to his provocative and insightful writing style. The most popular of his works, Margins of Philosophy (1972), sets out the most detailed defense and explanation of the main features of his new, "deconstructionist" approach to philosophy. Derrida rejects a number of key assumptions made by past philosophers (especially the "structuralists" whose views were very influential in France during the middle part of the century), such as: the priority of speech over writing; the notion that texts have an objective structure giving each a primary or most correct "meaning"; the belief that the author rather than the reader gives the text its true meaning; etc. In place of such views he demonstrates with his own writing that texts have many layers of genuine meanings and that the reader's own meaning(s) may be just as valid as the one(s) intended by the author. Moreover, he refuses to give philosophical texts a privileged position in relation to other types of writing; they are simply another form of literature to be interpreted and critically assessed.
As a literary critic, Derrida values the act of writing as the primary category of all philosophy and the most basic form of verbal communication. The essence of writing is a "free play" of language, not the communication of some deeper "meaning". As he puts it: "There is nothing outside the text." Rather than searching for some elusive "true meaning", interpreters should view their task as playing with the text until some new insight arises as a result. Some of the "tricks" Derrida uses to deconstruct classical texts in this way are to find a dominant metaphor that guides the way the key terms are used and understood, to trace all such terms back to their original or literal meanings, to focus on differences between what might seem to be the "obvious" meaning of a text and other, hidden meanings, and to explore the way different types of differences interact (including differences in sound, spelling, etc.). He coined the term "différance" to refer to the latter, the interplay between different differences, emphasizing that we are able to examine only one type of difference at a time: the other types must "defer" to the one that grabs our attention at any given time. To locate such alternative or underlying metaphors, meanings, differences-such différance-Derrida often utilizes concepts from depth psychology, arguing that unconscious connections are imbedded in the text. In so doing, his aim is not to deny a text's "traditional" interpretation(s), so much as to play around with the wide variety of other interpretations that might be just as plausible.
So convinced is Derrida that the proper interpretation of a text must always remain an "open", unstructured question, that he claims that the margins of a book are as important as the printed words. The margins, together with all the spaces between the words, constitute the différance that makes reading possible in the first place. On the one hand, the margins represent what is not written, and this tells us as much about a text's meaning as what is written. On the other hand, when a reader writes his or her own comments in the margins, these become as much a part of the text's meaning as what the original writer had in mind.
Though deconstructionism is by no means limited to texts relating to issues in moral philosophy, this is the best week to deal with the movement, because it tends to result in the notion of a text's meaning being totally relativized. And the implications of this total relativization are nowhere felt more strongly than in the realm of ethics. Derrida and other deconstructionists go so far as to claim that any attempt to insist on a "true" meaning, or to regard any principle as absolutely true, is a political ploy used to "oppress" people who hold different views. As such, the whole movement takes on a moralistic tone not unlike that of Nietzsche's, whereby any attempt to support traditional ideas is cast into disrepute. In fact, I was once at a seminar where a deconstructionist argued that even a simple logical principle such as the law of noncontradiction is nothing but a tool of oppression that ought therefore to be rejected! Another influential deconstructionist, Michel Foucault (1926-1984), applied such ideas in far more detail to moral issues, especially those relating to sexuality and mental illness But rather than examining his or others' ideas at this point, let us return to Kant in order to draw some conclusions about the implications of a healthy perspectivism for moral wisdom.
On the standard interpretation of Kant, as assumed by Nietzsche, he regarded the categorical imperative and perhaps even the specific maxims justified by it (such as "Never tell a lie") as absolute moral principles. However, Kant's moral theory need not be interpreted so rigidly. For, just as he regarded everything that appears in space and time (i.e., in the world) as contingent and therefore relative, while only what our mind imposes on the world a priori (i.e., as the world's boundary) is necessary or absolute, so also he regarded the moral worth of an action as stemming not from its result in the world of outer objects, but from its source in the agent's world of inner motives. Hence, Kant's moral theory is relativistic at least in this sense: the same action can be right in one situation and wrong in another if the underlying motivation is different in each case. Where Kant parted with strict relativism, in his moral theory as well as in other areas of his philosophy, was in believing there are absolute principles that underlie all such "relative" decisions. These principles are absolute only in the sense that they define specific perspectives; but we are free to adopt different perspectives to interpret any given situation. In this way, Kant's position transcends both the foundationalism that naively upholds the maxims of traditional morality as if they were absolutes and the antifoundationalism of deconstructionist relativism that wipes away all boundaries. Instead, Kantian perspectivism recognizes the boundaries as "relatively fixed"-i.e., fixed only in relation to the principles that define each perspective. No principle is true from every perspective, so nothing we know is "absolutely absolute".
Kant did recognize a level of reality that goes beyond the relatively absolute principles of his perspectivism. But as we saw in Lecture 8, he regarded this absolute or "ultimate" reality, the realm of the "thing in itself", as unknowable. Rather than merely defending the "old" morality, as Nietzsche claimed, Kant's perspectivism thus provided us with a third alternative. Traditional morality lives in the myth that a specific set of moral maxims (e.g., those found in the Bible) are absolutely true for all people and at all times. Relativism breaks through this myth by arguing that, because nothing is absolute, anything can be true or right. "Cultural relativism" is the more specific view that each culture sets its own boundaries, and that right and wrong are in fact nothing but cultural norms. But if this were the case, then no culture could ever be wrong and it would be difficult to imagine how or why a culture would ever change its moral standards. Nietzsche's relativism is not cultural, for he clearly accuses some cultures (namely, the Apollonian ones) of being morally corrupt. His view might rather be called absolute relativism, inasmuch as he argued that the only healthy moral theory is one that breaks through all boundaries, cultural or otherwise. Kant's position goes beyond relativism by encouraging us to return to the boundary of morality even though we are ignorant of exactly how fully we are following the moral law at any given time. For Kant, we are to believe there is something absolute, even though we cannot know exactly what it is; only when we humbly accept this unknowable absolute as a boundary-defining reality will we be able to make moral decisions that are genuinely our decisions (i.e., free) and yet genuinely moral as well.
The presence of a moral absolute, even if it is in a sense outside the world of our actions, has important implications for how we treat those who disagree with our opinions. Relativists usually encourage us always to be tolerant of the views of others. Tolerance in general is, of course, a very good thing. It is a reaction against an older way of looking at the world, as full of absolute, black and white distinctions that ought to be strictly forced onto all other people. In the name of absolute truth and goodness many people down through history have been attacked, ostracized, beheaded, and burned at the stake, merely for holding opinions differing from those of the people with more political power. Nevertheless, the danger in relativism is that it ultimately leads to the destruction of both knowledge and morality. By blurring the distinction between true and false or between right and wrong, it convinces people nowadays to ignore the inner guidelines that reason provides for us to determine truth and goodness. Must we, so to speak, "throw out the baby with the bath water"? Kant would say "No!" Be tolerant up to a point, but not at the expense of denying two of the highest values in human life. Kantian perspectivism provides an alternative to relativism by maintaining that there are rational absolutes, and that, although these absolutes are objectively unknowable, practical reason itself communicates them to each person, if only we will listen to its voice. Because goodness and truth have their absolute basis not in the actions and objects found in the world, but in the rational voice within each individual, intolerance can still be opposed, but not so systematically as to destroy the possibility of knowledge and morality.
Kant's own keyword for the basic principle of morality, respect is actually related in a significant etymological way (at least in English) to the whole notion of a perspective. To "re-spect" a person is "to look again" at them and their situation-to think twice before judging or acting according to one's own inclinations. To "per-spect" a situation is "to look through (or by means of)" a given presupposition at the various details under consideration. Interestingly, at least one translator has used "to perspect" for Kant's term "einsehen", literally meaning "to see in" and as a noun, "understanding" or "insight". This accurately reflects the close relationship we have seen operating throughout this course between perspectives and insights. Thus we could say that, as respecting is to morality, perspecting is to insight, and so also to philosophy in general.
Before concluding this lecture, I would like to mention that some of you are still falling into the self-reference trap (see Lecture 10) in your insight papers. Now that we have a deeper understanding of perspectives and how they function in relation to myths, I hope you will be more adept at stating your arguments more carefully. With this in mind, let me now give another example of how to deal with philosophical questions without falling into this fallacy. Once I read a paper that claimed "Truth always hurts", and another that similarly argued "The only time we can be certain of what is true is when it inflicts pain on us." Such claims may be true and even wise in a variety of human situations. But if we present such an insight as a universal principle, then it obviously fails the self-reference test. For merely believing the statement "Truth always hurts" does not, in itself, inflict any pain on the believer. If the principle is true, then there is at least one truth that does not hurt!
Kant's perspectivism, on my interpretation, is unique and superior to all the other options we have considered, inasmuch as it argues that each area of applied philosophy does have its proper boundary, but that none of these are absolute in the sense of applying to all situations. On the contrary, we may choose to impose one set of boundaries on a situation at one point in time, thereby treating it as a determined event in a scientific framework, yet impose a different set of boundaries on the same situation at a later time, thereby treating it as a moral situation. Whereas Nietzschean perspectivism, like deconstructionism, regards the perspectival nature of all knowledge as virtually doing away with the notion of truth, Kantian perspectivism reconstructs what has been relativized by regarding perspectives as truth-defining boundaries -or in the case of moral philosophy, as goodness-defining boundaries. To say that an act is good only relative to the moral standpoint does not reduce morality to a cultural norm or personal preference, but raises it to the status of a philosophically justified belief.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER THOUGHT/DIALOGUE
1. A. Can a single action be both free and determined at the same time?
B. Are there any absolute (i.e., unchangeable) boundary lines?
2. A. Can a value judgment ever be false?
B. Can two genuine duties contradict each other?
3. A. Are "life-denying" acts ever morally right?
B. Could a human being kill God?
4. A. Is a "breakthrough" always good?
B. Is philosophy without reason really possible at all?
1. Immanuel Kant, Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, Second Section, "Transition From the Popular Moral Philosophy to the Metaphysics of Morals" (FMM 405-445).
2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Book II, "Dialectic of Pure Practical Reason" (CPrR 106-148).
3. J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. Oskar Piest (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957).
4. G.E. Moore, Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, ?25 (JW).
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Prologue (TSZ).
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future, tr. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973).
8. Jacques Derrida, "Différance", Margins of Philosophy, tr. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp.1-27.
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