Saturday, 23 July 2011
Ethics -- Does might make right?
Read this quote:
Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favour of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.
Here is a succinct synthesis of Nietzschean ethics. Nietzsche's claim was that morality does not exist, and only power equates to legitimacy. The powerful are therefore legitimised in crushing the weak; as he puts it in The Antichrist, 'the weak must perish.'
Nietzsche's propositions have always been controversial, because our own sense of empathy insitinctively rebels against this notion that the weak should be killed. There's also the historical association with Nazism, which seemed to apply this rule (albeit under the non-Nietzschean assumption that the Jewish race represented 'weakness').
Our instinctive revulsion, however, is not enough to disqualify the statement. Questions of what is right and wrong must be subsidiary to the greater question of how our moral systems stand when confronted with power. For it is indeed true that historical law subverts moral dictates all the time. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, or as soon as the situation makes immoral acts advantageous, men will be known to choose the option which leads to greater power (or the exercise thereof). While morality (or the advantages of morality) rests for its application on the condition of power not being abused, power does not rest under any condition posed by morality. If men can exercise power under the endorsement of moral law, then all for the better. If they can't, they will do so without that endorsement or absolution. In this sense, it is true that power is a more important concept than morality.
But the question of whether power equates to moral legitimacy deserves greater attention. It is more often subject to gross simplifications and misinterpretations than to accurate examinations. (For one thing, such an assertion is itself a moral projection, and not an exercise of power, and therefore it is inherently paradoxical. But it is not the deconstructionist line of thought that I'm interested in today). I would argue that the 'synthesis' I have quoted above is an example of such a simplification, and it is therefore untenable, at least in that form.
Does might make right? Let's run this statement through a few historical and/or hypothetical scenarios.
Was Rome justified in invading Carthage and razing it to the ground, slaughtering all its inhabitants and even spreading salt on the ground, that nothing may grow of it again? Any Christian would answer, no. Nietzsche would say, yes. The very fact of their greater power over the second greatest civilisation of the world gave them the right to eliminate them. The statement may seem repellent at first, but at least it is equanimous: if the Carthaginians had been the most powerful, they would have had moral legitimacy in razing Rome to the ground. No bias is allowed, no questions of taste or culture or religion apply. History is the only judge.
Weighing up consequences is an act which does not come into the equation. It *does not matter* that Rome went on and civilised Europe, building roads everywhere and advancing science and engineering, literature and art (or, on the other hand, reducing thousands to slavery and indulging in gladiatorial horrors). These are all retrospective considerations which depend on the original exercise of power. The act is neither redeemed nor condemned by its consequences - both because these consequences, while conditional to the original act, are not inherent in it (things could have gone either way, depending on other, non-quantifiable factors), and also because the act is its own consequence. To judge the act by its posterior developments means to defer the moral judgement, not to proffer it.
This also means that the 'evolutionary' argument is null. Defendants of the Nietzschean statement sometimes argue something like this: "The weak must die and be replaced by the strong, so that the strong can use their strength for their great deeds, and thereby advance all of humanity. If the weak are not allowed to die, we never step forward, and a civilisation becomes mouldy, decadent and corrupt." I say it is an evolutionary argument because it can be synthesised like this: "the weak must die for the good of the species." Indeed this is exactly what nature does, killing off the weaker members of a species so the species as a whole is fortified. The argument that humanity works or should work according to the same principle, while cruel, is not wholly irrational. But it is not relevant to an application of Nietzschean ethics. As I said, if we judge the act by its posterior developments, we are not judging the act at all. This is not to apply Nietzschean ethics to an act, it is only to rationalise it. From the Nietzschean perspective, a killer is justified by his power, not by the later politically correct application of it. (Nietzsche would also argue that it is the original exercise of power which produces the cultural milieu and the moral standards which then justify the exercise which led them into existence).
The issue of the Roman destruction of Carthage cannot be judged by questions of right or wrong to the extent that these considerations are immaterial to the act itself. Regardless of whether it's right or wrong, power takes its own path anyway. Morality fails in the face of power.
Does might make right? Let's examine the question further. If a man kills another in a desert, is the act of murder justified by the very fact that the first man has the power to execute it? Again, the Christian says no, and Nietzsche says yes. Again, we are appalled by Nietzsche's statement, but we have no argument to propose against it: our considerations remain immaterial before the act itself. History *does not care* about what we think is right or wrong.
But let's imagine further. The murderer walks a little more into the desert, and encounters a third man. This third man is a brigand and even stronger, and he kills the murderer. (This is not an act of 'justice' motivated by law or revenge; imagine that this third man were simply looting the first). Again, from the Nietzschean perspective, this brigand is justified. But here's the catch: this system can go on indefinitely. The brigand can himself encounter another brigand who is even stronger and be legitimately killed, who in turn can encounter another stronger and more legitimate murderer, and so on. Each time, the killer in the desert can encounter another killer who is stronger than him, and each time he can get killed. And according to this logic, the new murderer will always be right.
This is important because there is never a final point, there is never a last man who is right, because there can always be someone more powerful. In theology, the chain would stop at God, which ironically supports Nietzsche's system: God is the ultimate right, simply because God is the ultimate power.
The defining aspect of power is that it is quantifiable. It may not be *measurable,* because there are no scales for it, but it's always a question of 'more' or 'less' of it. The more power you have, the more you achieve supremacy in your conflicts, and therefore (from the Nietzschean perspective) the more right you are. But the amount of power you can have goes up, theoretically, to infinity. There is never a point where you can stop and say, *this* is right.
Now this is important in light of how morality, at least traditional morality as we always understand it (including major philosophy), works. Here is a quote presented to me by Jack Hudson:
If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies, that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgements conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.
Francis Schaeffer. How Then Should We Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.
Personally I disagree with the statement, and I wanted to discuss it, but I never found the time. This is not the occasion either, but it provides some important grounds for reflection. The writer is of course a Christian, and in this type of moral theology, one inevitably postulates what he calls an "absolute" moral standard. For our purposes, what matters is not the question of what such a standard is, but the fact that the projection/conception of morality requires an "absolute," a terminus, a final point.
What I am driving at is that morality is inherently Apollonian. I have discussed what Apollo and his counter-part Dionysus are in greater detail, in this article. (I must have linked this a thousand times, but that's because it is important). The point is that Apollo is THE absolute. Not just in morality, but in everything. Ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, whatever. The conception of an ideal, any ideal, is a projection of Apollo. Platonic forms, for instance, are an example of Apollonian projection. Utopian texts, likewise. Nietzsche knew this, of course - he was the one who first established the Apollo vs Dionysus duality, after all.
In the Apollo vs Dionysus duality, there are no right and wrong. Both deities provide for representations which can be right or wrong in the traditional senses according to the circumstance, and always in relation to each other. A Dionysian movement destroying or corrupting what we perceive to be an 'absolute' good will be understood as evil, while a similar movement liberating us from a totalitarian Apollonian principle (as Apollo, for the good or for the bad, is always inflexible), will be seen as something good. Blasphemy would be an example of evil Dionysus, while the hippy movement would be seen as good Dionysus (depending on the perspective, you could say the opposite, too, and this proves the point).
Worshipping Dionysus. But folding over to become Apollo.
I think it can be agreed that ethics, whatever the culture or the philosophy behind them, always require an Apollonian projection. Everyone points towards or at least implies some final good, an ultimate referent by which to legitimise their actions. This referent is carefully elaborated in moral systems, though such a referent is false (as all Apollonian projections are false, or at least illusory, and no more in our grasp than Platonic forms). It is false because it does not apply in the real world. It only serves as that real world's referent, to lift a mirror to it and let it pass judgments on what is right or wrong.
Now the issue with power-based ethical systems, which I have so far been referring to as Nietzschean systems, is that they are quantifiable. Greater or lesser degrees of power. Since there is never a point where you can stop and say *this* is right, there can be no Apollonian projection in power-based ethics, and therefore no right (or wrong). This invalidates the claim that might makes right. The original quote by McCarthy falls under its own argument. Or, alternatively, it invalidates the idea that there are such things as right and wrong at all (which was Nietzsche's contention). There is no ethical justification behind power. If you are applying power, you are neither right nor wrong.
The claim that 'might makes right' is therefore bullshit, and it can be laughed into ridicule when anyone propounds it so simplistically. It is true that moral systems exist as temporary, frail projections which are brushed away according to historical whim, and they have no absolute referent to return to. But power is no such absolute referent either (and it cannot be mistaken for one), because it would have to be posited as an Apollonian value, and there can be no such thing as an Apollonian projection of power.
This is not to claim that morality does not exist. Instead, what (I think) I am saying is that power and morality are two separate concepts, at once interdependent and incompatible. Power is understood only as the ability to transcend moral law (for all law is moral law), while morality exists only as the negation of power. The question of whether might makes right is a confusion of terms - if you speak of one thing, you are instantly negating the existence of the other. Even Nietzsche did not claim that 'right' and 'wrong' in this sense did not exist - what he did claim was that they were fictional constructions. And they do exist, and even matter, AS such fictional constructions. Power is not a fictional construction, but precisely for this reason, it cannot be conceptualised, much less invoked as a moral scaffold. The moment that you *speak* about power, you are outside of the practice and exercise of power.
So morality and power, at the heart of the most important conflict in ethics, are simply expressions of Apollo and Dionysus - the ultimate duality. Apollo is moral law, and Dionysus is the uncontrolled breaking thereof. Apollo is projection, concept and representation, Dionysus is pure immediacy and actualisation.
Usually the moral debate that I have been expounding on is framed in 'either/or' terms. You'll find idealists who claim that morals do exist (whether theologically based or not), and cynics who claim that morals are an invention and all that exists is human nature and instincts (or other expressions of power and determinism). Inbetween, there's a whole array of intermediates, people who believe that morals are relative or contextual, those who believe that morals exist but are too often corrupted, and others.
And yet the 'either/or' position doesn't hold. Both morals AND power exist, as the concepts which allow for each other. To remove one is to remove the other, and yet to promote one is to negate the other. If you defend power as the source of legitimation, you are already, inescapably making a moral statement; conversely if you defend morals, your arguments hold no weight face to the dynamics of power and ultimately mean nothing. And yet to promote the one is also to negate the other: if you invoke power, you are saying that morals are irrelevant and do not exist, while if you invoke morals, you are claiming there's a higher authority than power, which negates the idea of power in the first place.
This is the typical, interdependent structure of Apollo vs Dionysus dualities, and what I've just been writing about is the way that it expresses itself in the discourse of ethics. It certainly doesn't stop there.
Though I've re-iterated the importance of the A vs D tension in our ways of thinking, I'm sorry that I could not reach a more conclusive statement. I had originally set out to find a better type of closure, but there is none. There is, at best, transcendence of both the concepts of power and morality. To understand how they depend on each other and influence, determine our thought, is to go beyond both. Ethical systems which do not 'go beyond' in such a way, which do not recognise this ongoing duality and tension, are to me obsolete and of no interest, at least until I find a text that proves me wrong.
Two notes in closing. Firstly, if this is at all in question, none of what I've been writing invalidates or goes against Nietzsche's claims. This was never intended as a 'riposte to Nietzsche' or something like that, and this is because the guy's arguments were so much more than simply 'might makes right' (his antagonists usually reduce his philosophy to such a statement, which means not to read him). His ethics were actually based on the subtler, almost wholly intellectual principle of destroying Apollo and embracing Dionysus, as part of a cyclical historical process (this is the most puzzling aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy to me... I don't understand why he values one God more than the other, instead of recognising the positive and negative aspects of both). The identity that we assume by engaging with such an historical process is not that of the superman (again, ever so easily misinterpreted). Instead, the superman is the unconceivable telos at the end of the cyclical process of history; the reward of our studies in the humanities (the "above-man"); that which gives meaning to our struggle, but which we cannot conceive precisely because it is beyond our struggle (and inasmuch as it is non-descript, non-conceived, it is not an Apollonian projection). In Nietzsche's vision, we are fulfilled and find meaning in our strides towards the superman, not by actually becoming it. The superman does not really *exist*; he's not some tangible chap, or some real agent in history like Alexander or Napoleon. The superman is a myth, and if there can be such a thing, it is a myth of the future.
The second note is this: so much for my notion that "I'm not interested in the deconstructionist line today"! What I've spelled out has very much to share, and certainly owes very much (if not everything), to deconstruction. Apollo and Dionysus may never have been deconstructionist tropes, but this idea of interdependent and simultaneously incompatible concepts certainly is. I guess I'm going to have to give Derrida his dues, after all the jazz on Nietzsche. Though he certainly couldn't write half as prettily.