Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

I think that over the years one of the largest, yet in some ways most subtle, philosophical moves I've made is in the context of ethical perception. I could drone on and on about my evolution towards personal liberty and away from the standard institutions of political, religious, and social thought, and I think I could do a pretty decent job refuting any arguments or counter-points that could be tossed in the direction of that personal movement. And yet, even though that shift and my solidarity with it is directly tied to an ever-changing understanding of ethics in at least some regard, I think the general conceptualization of ethics can be an entangling endeavor.

I was listening to a radio program earlier, and a woman was discussing "gold-diggers." Of course, the general view was a dissenting one, but the framing of the issue was classically ironic. She apparently thought that being with someone because of their wealth was an immoral endeavor (or at least a shallow one). And she expressed that view with the imposition of an interesting rhetorical device, "How much money would you have to be getting to date someone that you found ugly/repulsive?" My initial thought was centered on the obvious irony of exchanging the acceptance of one socio-cultural taboo for another. Here we have the inevitable realization of the political incorrectness in sizing someone by their wealth juxtaposed with the unbridled ignorance displayed by using the parallel taboo of sizing one by their looks.

Of course, if someone would have brought this up, I'm sure they would have back-pedaled and tried to explain that they weren't trying to size anyone by looks either. However, that tiny beam of light would have already been shed on said hypocrisy at that point. And there was a time where I would have shook my head and begun moralizing that juxtaposition in my own mind; thinking how silly and immoral it would be to generally deduce anything from a person's looks OR wealth. But I think the over-arching concepts here are a little more complex than that head-shaking kid would have been willing to consider at the time.

All of this thinking about right and wrong got me re-considering some of Nietzsche's work in the field of ethics (if you want to call it that). It reminded me of the primary difference in what he dubbed as Master-Slave moralities (I'd encourage anyone who hasn't to read Those Spoke Zarathustra to do so to get a better idea of this concept). In very direct terms, the difference between the two was that a Master Morality was based on the exercise of one's individual power and will over his environment; in accordance, one who simply devises his own morality and creates his own path. The Slave Morality was one devoted to personal subjugation and sacrifice; ultimately submission of the individual to another individual or the aggregation thereof.

Nietzsche felt that the downfall of Western society would come to fruition through its thorough embrace of nihilism and its inability to repeal it's clutch on Slave Morality. To his mind, there had been a general struggle in the West between Master and Slave moralities. The proclivity of various individuals and parts of society to gain knowledge and dominion over their surroundings (as observed in the Greek and Roman empires, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, etc.) would eventually push us in a direction where reason and intelligence would lead society to realize the improbability of deitic overlords (gods). Believing that Slave Morality was borne out of cultural and religious institutions (the social pressure of sacrificing your own wants and needs to "serve" god, other individuals, or the "greater good"), he felt that a general evolution towards Master Morality had to be made in order to avoid societal nihilism. A group of people devoted to serving others in what they might later realize was really a godless and amoral vacuum of time and space would find their submissive sensibilities out of context. In effect, with the realization that there was no ethereal being applying tangible moral standards and that moral repercussions were within the context of an after-life that didn't exist, people who had not laid the foundations of ethics in something more personable and concrete may be led to believe that life has no meaning in its entirety. Although many self-proclaimed nihilists look to Nietzsche for inspiration, few of them realize that his damnation of religion and Slave Morality was actually a damnation of nihilism by proxy; he was warning society of the socio-cultural ramifications of adopting Slave Morality.

The distinction between these two juxtaposed moral systems lie in their axiomatic ends. Master Moralists would have a tendency to discuss things in terms of "good" and "bad" while Slave Moralists would have a tendency to discuss things in terms of "good" and "evil." Master Morality would tend to loosely center on values that are life-affirming in a personal context. Things that are good would likely be personal power, will, strength, productivity, intelligence, love, passion, humor, and so on. To the Master Moralist, these things enhance the life of the individual. Things that would be good to a Slave Moralist, on the other hand, would be sacrifice, submission, obedience, humility, mercy, faith, and so on. Now, there are some attributes that can cross over between the two. For instance, a Master Moralist can certainly have mercy or humility if it is in accordance with his own personal sense of morality. But the difference is that he is not morally obligated by the conception of society or the moral grumblings of a non-existent god, but rather he is obliged by his own morality and a general respect for other individuals' power over their own dominions. The general idea was that he wanted humanity to evolve to the point where we no longer had Slave Morality but instead that we would all be masters and tread our own paths without fear of subjugation or retribution.

I always thought this was interesting because it presents a very clear dichotomy between two moralities that are often inter-woven in Western culture today. The speaker on the radio show seemed to clearly embrace the idea that gravitating towards someone because of money was inherently "evil" to at least some extent. And this is a vestige of Slave Morality in my opinion. We reject that as a valid factor in the consideration of one's values because we have religious and social pressures that imply that wealth, greed, and material selfishness is "evil." In its stead, we propose giving and sacrifice; meekness. However, from a Master Morality point of view, wealth or productivity is "good." It's good because an individual command over one's surroundings and a capacity to furnish yourself with goods, services, and various luxuries is in the vein of life-affirmation. Being able to attain food, clothes, shelter, medicine, and so on would be the essence of what is "good" to such people. In contrast, being obedient to those demanding that you should or must sacrifice the product of your labor and will would be "bad" because it's life-denying from a personal perspective and it's not the product of your own personal moral imperatives. On the other hand, while fixation on beauty may be equally "evil" to Slave Moralists, the Master Moralist may have a problem understanding how beauty fits into the "good-bad" paradigm. To the Master Moralist, this is simply a matter of preference and exertion of personal will. Beauty is neither a life-confirming nor life-denying value. It's purely aesthetic.

There are certainly points that I disagree with Nietzsche on. In fact, I find a good deal of his contributions on individuality quite abhorrent. But I find it interesting that over time I think I've slowly gravitated towards a sense of ethics that is more in line with his sense of "Master Morality" than the societal norm. I'm sure there are a fair number of people that would think this is a terrible thing, and indeed with something as obtuse as morality and ethics, contentions are bound to appear. But I think it's even more interesting to consider that not only is our sense of morality often simplified or taken for granted, but that it may often actually be the coalescence of competing, and even more complex, ethical views, even if we rarely stop to contemplate it.

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