anotherlongshot (anotherlongshot) wrote,

On Morality

I spent a few hours reading Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic in the library despite having zero intention to study him for the exam, thus effectively using up precious revision time to satisfy a sudden fascination with subversive morality. I note with interest how I started the Jurisprudence course totally emanoured with Kant's idea of morality (though, looking back on the entries that I wrote about it, it's clear that I didn't understand it that well), convinced that it was the answer to the bigger question of What Is Morality; and I'm ending the course leaning away from Kant, drifting towards Hobbes, and searching for answers in Nietzsche.

Perhaps it is a defence mechanism, a way of shielding myself from what could plausibly be termed 'truths' about myself to which I don't want to admit. I have come to realise from my short time in London that one of the things that I value most in the world (if not the thing that I value most) is freedom - personal freedom in the sense of having no one telling me what to do, and political freedom in the sense of not having a government tell me what to do. Kant's idea of freedom is something else: because human beings are rational creatures with the ability to choose, in a given situation, to act according to the moral law that his good will (Wilkur, I think, is the German) legislated for him in that particular situation, he is only truly free when he acts autonomously and chooses duty over inclination or desire. In this sense, the concept of freedom is a limited and deeply internal one: it is the freedom from being controlled by one's desires, the freedom arising from turning one's back to one's inclination and choosing to act according to one's moral law in a given situation.

This still makes sense to me. I still remember how I didn't really agree with my professor when she said that Kant presents a very austere, even robotic, picture of morality. To some extent, I still think it represents the paradigmatic morality, or an ideal, or an aspiration: that, arguably, morality is the result of a rational calculation and therefore it can never be wrong.

But it demands too much of us. It negates Hobbes' accurate observation of human nature. Kant was not a fan of Hobbes' empiricist philosophy, but there is so much truth to what Hobbes said about human nature precisely because he observed it, he saw what was happening during the civil wars, and he knew that life, when stripped of the pretensions of those that live it in order to give it more seriousness and meaning, was essentially 'a motion of limbs'. Of course, Hobbes' conception of the human being as a self-interested creature who is driven by his 'appetites' and self-preservation does not necessarily preclude the correctness of Kant's idea of human rationality and autonomy; in fact, I don't see them as contradictory per se, because it is arguable that Kant's autonomous being is able to act in a way that overcomes his true nature, which is Hobbes' self-interested creature. Still - if we are all essentially the way that Hobbes depicted, and I think that we are, then it means that most of us are not morally-worthy under the Kantian conception; that, rather, I am not morally-worthy. And it matters because I adopted Kant's morality as my own shortly after I was acquainted with it, precisely because I thought that it comported with how I tried to live my life.

Now, though, Nietzsche's subversion of Kantian/Christian morality is providing me with some cold comfort. He wrote that 'bad conscience' arose out of a brand of morality (Christian morality) that forced us to suppress our natural desires, and this suppression made us weak. The austerity of the morality that Kant espoused is likened to the ascetism of priesthood, characterised by a life of self-denial, using life as a means to what the priest believes is a bigger finality. Life is not enjoyed for its own sake; life is marked by a repetitive habit of suppression of one's desires, all in service a possibly false idol called Morality that has at its core an autonomous being with the freedom to choose to act morally, and who therefore is capable of being held responsible for his transgressions; a Morality, in fact, which foundations and origins we don't question, which precepts are accepted as givens, as if they are capable of being objectively true.

Maybe there is no such thing as a universal moral law. Maybe morality is a social construct, a habit that we acquired through Foucault's idea of discipline and disciplinary power. Maybe morality is a social necessity that is made up to impose order on what would otherwise be, in Hobbes' words, a state of war where it's every man for every man. Maybe it's not actually objectively wrong to kill someone, and we have been conditioned to think that it is because it prevents people from killing each other and causing chaos.

Maybe morality is always in flux, if it exists. Maybe it's really all relative - to the individual, to the culture, to the particular point in time. I'm a judicial review apologist, and I explain away illiberal and bad decisions like Bowers v. Hardwick and a host of others by saying that the courts got that particular decision wrong; that an objective moral right did exist, but the judges simply didn't realise it. Similarly, in putting forward my (previous?) position that there is a fundamental core morality that has always existed throughout the history of mankind, I explain away the bloodiest, most cruel periods of humanity by saying that the social conditions of the time did not allow the people to see this objective moral truth; but it doesn't mean that it wasn't there.

But that is me being rather sentimental, is it not? It strikes me now as a soppy attempt to make human beings bigger than they actually are. On what basis did I assert that? I wanted to believe in the innate goodness of the person, in the objectivity of morality, in something that makes us better than the automatons that Hobbes painted us to be. For what purpose, though? Maybe Kant got it wrong, for how can we be free if we are bound by our moral law? Maybe the correct thing to say is that we are free when we are aware of the separation between our desire and duty in a particular situation, and choose to follow our desire simply because we can. Is that not the ultimate exercise of freedom, of complete, utter autonomy?

Perhaps it is a defence mechanism. Perhaps I have actually changed my views. Perhaps it's just a phase. Nevertheless, people hardly behave in a Kantian manner, and Hobbes is still right about how we are essentially selfish creatures, driven by nothing but pure self-interest.
Tags: friedrich nietzsche, immanuel kant, michel foucault, personal, philosophy, thomas hobbes

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