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Considering Categorical Contingencies

by on February 7, 2011

      I have often found myself in debates concerning the true nature of ethics or ‘Ethics’ to include the opposing philosophy. Due to my anti-religious sentiments and my espousal of anti-universalist ethics, the ‘derogatory’ term of ‘relativist,’ ‘nihilist,’ and even that wonderfully championed quote from Dostoevsky’s ‘Brothers Karamazov’[1] are thrown at me with such an ‘absolutist’ passion. The insistence on needing such a standard raises some important questions, least of which is the value such a person places on the inability of man to use his supposed ‘God-given’ reason to formulate morals for him/her self to which then a functioning society can then be more/less based on these empirical/rational propositions.

     Most forms of ethics fall under the following categories: 1) Deontological/Universal; and 2) Utilitarianism/Consequentialism. The example most cited of the first category is the Ten Commandments or other ‘lists’ of ethics found in religious texts. However, one mustn’t need to resort to religion (which raises more questions to be formulated in the sub-category of the philosophy of religion) but can find a secular source in the ethical maxims of Immanuel Kant. His ‘Categorical Imperative’[2] is universal, it is duty based to be more specific. Another aspect of Kant’s ethics in the context of duty is that it is more/less apart from the ‘human condition,’ for as he points out; ‘The majesty of duty has nothing to do with the enjoyment of life.’[3] Though one should point out that Kant was not devoid of feelings of enjoyment or happiness, but the happiness at performing one’s duty, in a way, was incidental and not the sole purpose of performing one’s duty. This aspect can be sharply contrasted with the system of ethics known as Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism was started by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, further formulated and elaborated upon by John Stuart Mill, and can be found in the contemporary writings of Princeton bio-ethics professor Peter Singer.[4]In the plainest terms possible, utilitarianism takes a quantitative view of ethics, striving to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, inhibiting the least harm to the least amount of people. There exists still today a bit of ambiguity as to the necessary qualitative side of this ethical formulation- as in how to determine/measure the ‘happiness,’ and the ‘harm.’[5]

     Yet, both Kant’s duty based ethics and utilitarianism both seem to miss something important. Kant’s ethics seem devoid of the ‘human condition,’ which is a common omission in the formulation of universal or absolute ethics. Different circumstances create the necessity of contingencies, reformulations, and ‘x’ factors that such a system of ethics would see as unnecessary. For according to Kant, the duty base ethics must transcend the human condition, it need not require empirical validation whatsoever. The transcendent, independent of man’s experience, thoughts, or considerations, exist as a universal ‘template’ that we must simply follow. Unlike the utilitarian’s insistence on the consequences of one’s actions determining the ‘happiness’ of an act, Kant merely wants the following of a duty which is universal (all follow regardless of ‘x,y,z’), the consequence being pretty irrelevant in the scheme of things. As with the religious formulations of universal ethics, it seems to merely assume that the duty or commandments are universally right which may or may not create happiness in us, but are right independent of their consequences.  As with the avoidance of considering the ‘human condition’ in Kant’s ethics, utilitarianism seems to create man into a sort of  ‘machine,’ a materialist sort of construction in which ‘happiness’ is simply ‘happiness.’[6] This seems quite foolish in that there are as many notions and ideas of happiness as ethical formulations themselves. One example might clarify the impracticality of both of these systems and it’s a topic that we all enjoy thinking about; sex. According to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, if I am a sadist and have found a willing masochist, before engaging in some sort of sexual activity, my mind creates the hypothesis of imagining the world in which everyone was a sadist and due to the image of the whole world being filled with sadists- I probably would refrain from engaging in such a consensual and pleasurable experience, for you would need a willing masochist to enjoy your preference of sadism. Yet, some do like sadism[7] and it is obviously not for everyone. If everyone was a sadist then sadism wouldn’t exist- and this is the point. It takes out the particular; it takes out the subject from the equation and in the end generalizes man into a simple construct that is able to formulate his/her behavior void of preferences. Yet, something as simple as lying could work just as well and this is one in which the religious formulations can enter into the discussion. Kant’s Categorical Imperative and the Ten Commandments both prohibit lying, yet, what about in situations such as building a child’s imagination? Should we tell our children there is no Santa Claus because it is a sin or because we wouldn’t want the whole world lying? For in the first case we would be committing a slight against God and in the latter case we would be condoning the liar.[8] In the end both systems seem to miss the individual and the ‘human condition.’

     As touched on earlier, the reference to Dostoevsky’s work ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ the transcendent notion of duty found in Kant is found in the Christian God (or for another example, Plato’s Form of the Good). There is no empiricism necessary (sense experience lending to validation), no real rationalism necessary either (mental contemplation using logic or reason lending to validation) to be a ‘moral agent.’ What’s needed is, to be blunt, ‘blind obedience.’ If God is not just the source of ‘Morality’[9] but is in fact ‘Morality’ itself, then there is no need to question the commandment (rationalism) nor any ‘field experiments’ to validate (empiricism, scientific method), nor any concern for general concern for the ‘Other’[10] (utilitarianism).

     Now, what’s important here to keep in mind is that we all contain a very important aspect that makes us human- subjectivity. Simply put, subjectivity is your mind, your thoughts, goals, dreams, fears, etc. To use existentialist terminology, this form of subjectivity is going to, of course, be based on your facticity.[11] The other aspect of your subjectivity is transcendence. Now, unlike Kant’s transcendence of duty or the transcendence of Christian morality, the subjective transcendence is simply what I have been pointing out throughout this piece. Based on your facticity, you will have certain goals, certain dreams, be in certain situations and all your reactions are going to be based on your facticitiy of who you have been thus far which you can’t change and who it is you want to be. Thus, one can argue that man lives not in the present per se, but in a constant back and forth, a constant overcoming of oneself.[12]This overcoming consists in acting in a way of creating yourself as you want to be. However, I have digressed considerably and have found myself yet again in the throes of an almost dogmatic appreciation of the subjectivity found in existentialism.

     The major point is that it is through one’s own subjectivity, based off one’s facticity and transcendence, that true morality can be reached. Now, one could argue that this seems about as relativistic and nihilistic as ever (remember my intro paragraph?). Yet, there is a quick answer to this charge. The idea of what is generally known as Virtue Ethics[13] is the system of ethics that most resembles the flux nature of man.[14]As opposed to merely following rules (Kant, Ten Commandments) or performing a computation to see how it will all apply (utilitarianism), virtue ethics is something that one cultivates. Through education, contemplation, and experiences; the person develops a morality that is conducive to him/her self. To elucidate Aristotle specifically, a medical analogy is somewhat useful. Philosophy was thought to be the cure for the soul, as medicine was the cure for physical illness. Aristotle’s Lyceum was filled with students from all around the world in which different theories on the good, the just, political matters made up the different tools in which to use in arriving at the conception of the ‘good life.’ Another application of this medical analogy is that the doctor has to listen to the patient to know the specific ailment, and it is not only the reading and formal education that will cure the patient. The doctor must have experience and have had to empirically deal with patients to ‘collect’ some of the variables and contingencies and anomalies that a patient can have that diverges from an established norm.[15] Aristotle studied numerous constitutions, helped invent the fields of biology and botany and many other fields of science- and it was with this knowledge that he was able to help construct an ethics based on practicality. A student at Aristotle’s Lyceum didn’t just blindly follow Aristotle’s ethics as the ‘Right,’ but Aristotle listened to other theories, incorporated considerations, and used other empirical tools.[16] Now, as opposed to Kant who did not know of all the human variables, as opposed to God who according to his characteristics could not have a thought of lust for example, Aristotle developed a ‘Golden Mean’ which in fact does take into consideration the variables I have alluded to. He realizes that individuals are different, that one’s facticity and transcendence will not make man such an easy project. The ethical theory of moderation attempts to have man cultivate through empirical and rational means, the ‘good life.’ Sometimes, it may be permissible to do certain things- it all depends on the circumstance. For example, Aristotle insists that sometimes it is necessary to be a coward- for if you are alone and a gang of criminals is approaching- the Homeric warrior would be foolish to charge. Yet, there are times to be violent, full of rage, to charge. The idea is to find which response fits the occasion. Aristotle elucidates the role of particulars in moral decisions: ‘Among statements about conduct…the particular ones are more true- for action is concerned with particulars, and statements must harmonize with these.’[17]

     As Aristotle responds to the Universal Good of Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche responds to the universal ethics found in Christianity and bourgeoisie society (for now we will exclude the arguments of the latter). Nietzsche found the universal aspects of Christian morality as ‘life-denying’ in the sense that morality was primarily concerned with prohibitive declarations that conflicted with human desires (ex. Lust) and put man in the context of an ‘other-worldly’ contest. The notion of sin, as opposed to a mistake or fault, creates such metaphysical baggage in that you didn’t just offend a fellow man, but you committed a fault against an all-powerful God who has created/allowed the creation of a hell to which you may end up. The prospect of a heaven also seems to shift emphasis in enjoying this life for what it is for a ‘stage’ or ‘test’ in which to enjoy eternity in a paradise. Not to mention that the threat of an all-powerful God judging you would put quite a strain on the nature of man. Nietzsche calls for an abolishment of these notions of good/evil in the absolutist sense[18]. The call to man is to develop his own morality, to not simply follow the dictates of a God based on tradition or upbringing. Nietzsche wants us to reach our full potential and this is best accomplished through the cultivation of our talents and desires.[19] This allows for our individuality to develop further and allows more merit and responsibility to our actions. For by following, for example, the Ten Commandments and Christian theology, one doesn’t just cultivate one’s own potential, but acts in accordance to glorify God, avoiding mistakes dictated from afar, worrying of this ‘otherworldly’ destination that awaits us, suppressing human desires that are not inherently wrong or immoral, and in so many ways constricts our actions to an external set of commandments that takes the individual’s wishes into no consideration. This is not to say that Nietzsche thinks all Christian or absolute morals are always wrong- for Nietzsche encourages ‘courtesy, friendship, health, honesty, justice,’ while at the same time, contrary to Christian theology, he advocates ‘aestheticism[20], egoism, exuberance, ‘the feminine,’[21] and pride.’[22]

     Now, Nietzsche being a philologist loved the Homeric and early Greek conceptions of man, and found such things as pride and lust as things that weren’t ‘Wrong’ but something that should be responsibly cultivated, not inhibiting the advancement of the individual. Nietzsche asks, contrary to the declarations in Christian theology, why is pride bad? For we are humans and if we accomplish something should we not be proud? Why is humility such a great thing? Why will the meek inherit the earth? Nietzsche felt that this was ‘life-denying’ not because he thought it inhibited man from having a orgiastic great old time, but because these things were inherent in man, and it takes more difficulty and more responsibility to control these things personally then simply obeying a metaphysical decree banning all of it. There are times to be humble, there are times that lust is a good and natural thing, and this last part is the most important. Nietzsche didn’t necessarily want to have an ethics system based on the modern definition of hedonism[23] or debauchery. Nietzsche was a fan of a naturalistic sense of ethics. Instead of simply following rules or going with ‘the herd,’ Nietzsche advised us to create ourselves through the lens of our potential and talents. Nietzsche advocated being healthy[24], being strong, being determined- as opposed to being subservient to the Will of God, shooting for heaven, and praying for guidance. The above affirmed ethics is also based on one’s own cultivation and desires- not any idea of Providence. To encapsulate the emphasis that Nietzsche puts on focusing on this world and focusing on your actions and how your actions are your own, and the weight of responsibility of your life is all your own and you are held accountable to yourself; Nietzsche in his masterpiece ‘The Gay Science,’ offers a thought-experiment that illustrates both his imperative of reaching your full potential and his insistence of avoiding illusions of ‘otherworldly’ paradises or houses or torment; ‘The Theory of Eternal Recurrence’:

          ‘What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence- even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, a speck of dust!

          Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?…Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?’

     Now, this idea of circular time goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, the physics of time as being circular doesn’t add up, neither does the guarantee that this life is the first life, so don’t bother attempting to refute this on some power trip of interpreting this quote literally. The point of this quote is to place you at the center of your life, decisions, fate, goals, fears, everything. Many people would fear such a proposition, choosing instead a notion of repentance and hopes of escaping this world and joining an absolute paradise. But entertain Nietzsche’s thought experiment and attempt to juxtapose it with which you have thus become and, if possible, juxtapose the aforementioned pairing with who it is you really want to be existentially.  This experiment requires you to think as an individual in numerous ways. To take responsibility of your choices alone, to declare who it is you really want to be and your own methods of cultivating your many characteristics that will allow you to reach your own pedestal. This disallows you of juxtaposing your life, conduct, and goals with God’s purpose, societal norms, tribal customs, trends, or traditions that are largely accepted on the grounds that they simply make things easier, nicer, or more comfortable. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard attempted to make becoming a Christian harder and thus giving it more merit, Nietzsche attempts to put all the weight of your existence on you and this life alone, thus providing living this life with more merit.

      In conclusion, it is a subjective morality based on the cultivation of virtues and the realization of potential that creates what the ancient philosophers called ‘the good life.’ It is at least entertaining the notion that this life is all there is that puts the weight of choice and guilt on you alone and not on an external code of commandments nor a metaphysical concepts of sin and a metaphysical reward for, not being a good person, but for obeying. Subjective morality is not hedonism, nor is it simply following rules without any consideration of preferences or even that of society. One’s subjective morals, including for example courtesy, may coincide with society, but it is not from society’s dictates that form the whole basis of one’s personal morality- such parallels are incidental from the subjective goal of achieving the ‘good life.’ Such a morality takes in to account our uniqueness, the world’s ever changing political, social, religious, and cultural changes. It allows us to incorporate all of man’s urges and innateness into our behavior which further creates individual choice and responsibility.


[1] Paraphrased, it is ‘Without God, all is permissible.’ This is implying some universal standard, universal presence is needed. Not just a source of ‘Morality-as-such,’ but ‘Morality’ itself to which we are supposedly blessed through divine revelation as how to live.

[2] ‘That is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely this: act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ (‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals’). So for example, if you are faced with decision ‘a’- the permissibility of committing ‘a’ is tested on the hypothetical projection of what the world would be like if everyone did it. From this, the permissibility is then more/less apparent.

[3] ‘Critique of Practical Reason’

[4] For Jeremy Bentham, ref. ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ (1789). For John Stuart Mill, ref. ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861). For Peter Singer, ref. ‘Practical Ethics’ (1993)

[5] A branch or sometimes even a synonym of utilitarianism is ‘consequentialism’ in which the consequences are identified in terms of happiness. Mill did attempt introduce more qualitative distinctions than his predecessor Bentham who used ‘felicific calculus’ in an attempt to compute the value of ‘units’ of happiness.

[6] In no way am I implying that Kant was a materialist like Marx for example, I’m simply using the term in relation to my view of the consequences of applying a universal form of ethics.

[7] Read any of Marquis de Sade’s work for a literal and literary endorsement of sadism ie. ‘120 Days of Sodom’

[8] Interestingly enough actually, if everyone lied, the truth might become even more apparent!

[9] I use the upper case ‘M’ in morality to differentiate it from relativistic/virtue/subjective ethics.

[10] By ‘Other’ I simply mean another person, the community, the neighborhood, the tribe, or humanity in general.

[11] Facticity is simply aspects of you that you could not change- birthplace, date of birth, parents, initial upbringing, cultural/political/social surroundings, education, race, height. The famed philosopher Martin Heidegger encapsulates this notion with man being thrown onto a stage- for we know not when our time has come to exist, we are simply brought in to the world.

[12] Think of Nietzsche’s ‘Ubermensch’ as described in his masterpiece ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ in which man is something to be overcome. The context is a bit different in this case, but the general notion of ‘transcending’ oneself is still easily applicable.

[13] ‘Virtue ethics is the theory of ethics that takes the notion of virtue as primary, rather than a view either of the ‘good’, for the sake of which we act, or of duty, law or reason thought as providing rules of action.’ (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy)

[14] For an example of virtue ethics, the best source is Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ and Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (1886) and ‘The Gay Science’ (1882). The ethics obviously differ in certain areas, but the similarities in ethics between these two are inarguable.

[15] Something I believe that psychologists who use the DSM as a Bible should think about.

[16] Aristotle himself teaching in Greece did not come from Greece but from Macedonia

[17] ‘Nichomachean Ethics’ 1107a29-32

[18] Hence the title of Nietzsche’s work ‘Beyond Good and Evil’

[19] Unlike the majority of existentialists, Nietzsche, like his friend Paul Ree and ethics predecessor Benedict Spinoza, denied free will and Nietzsche instead adopted fatalism. Nietzsche advocated ‘amor fati’ (love of fate).

[20] Treating your life, in a way, as a work of art- a work in progress, something to beautify, unique, etc.

[21] In contrast to the historical perception of masculinity- brutish, ‘solid’ etc. This correlates somewhat with his advocacy of living life as work of art.

[22] Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins’ ‘What Nietzsche Really Said’ (2000)

[23] Nietzsche was actually working on a book of ethics before going insane in 1899.

[24] Ironically enough, Nietzsche was probably the unhealthiest and lived the most suffering life of any philosopher in history.

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