Nietzsche’s Inversion Of Natural Law In The Genealogy Of Morals

The radically constructive nature of legal and economic concepts emerges quite clearly in the brilliant second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Here, Nietzsche sets out his view of how the concept of a contract creates persons, how the ethical subject is not found but made. For Nietzsche, the law, a set of human practices, ‘creates’ its subjects by acting upon humans to make them into beings capable of obeying the law. The inversion Nietzsche forces upon us takes from the notion of a contract as a legally enforceable promise to the notion of a promise as a morally enforceable contract.

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Freedom in the Absence of Social Convention

In reviewing Arturo Fontaine‘s La Vida Doble, “a harrowing examination of violence during the Pinochet period,” whose heroine is Lorena, “a female terrorist who is tortured, changes sides, and becomes a torturer herself”, David Gallagher writes:

But why in fact do good fathers and meek husbands and generous lovers undertake such cruel torture? Here Lorena sees the torturer as someone who becomes isolated from any sort of moral standard while granted absolute impunity for what he does, no matter how vile. In the glib manner of a French student of the Sixties, she speculates about two opposing views of what happens when social conventions have no effect. One is that you recover the innocence of the noble savage. The other—the relevant one in this case—is that you revert to a state of primal savagery. Because there are no limits, she tells the “novelist,” an inner monster springs to life, one we all potentially harbor. Once there is no possibility of punishment, “the monster we carry within us, the beast that grows fat on human flesh, is unleashed within the good father or the daughter of a good family.”

Notice that Lorena establishes a dichotomy–there are only two possible modes of behavior possible when social conventions cease to constrain us. But we might speculate too–perhaps for the benefit of a future novelist–that the absence of social conventions might result in a new kind of freedom, one in which, rather than revert to the two states described above, human beings experiment with finding new orderings of moral and ethical values. Certainly, it isn’t clear why these “two opposing views” are the only possibilities open to human beings, why our options in the face of the absence of social conventions would be so limited.

The “two opposing views” that Gallagher refers to are influential, of course, but that might be due to a lack of imagination on the part of those speculating about a convention-free world. In the absence of convention it would also seem just as likely that rather than being innocent savages or beasts, we might merely be utterly confused and bereft, content to experiment with modes of behavior and interaction that might provide some guidance for how to proceed in this newly ordered world.

The “lack of imagination” I refer to above, is an almost inevitable consequence, of course, of a deeply essentialist view of human nature, one committed to the idea that the visible human persona consists of two layers: an abiding, enduring, inner self temporarily covered by a thin epidermis of social convention. But a more existential view would suggest that when social conventions are removed, we have no way of saying what will remain. Perhaps the new being that will emerge will delight in alternating between innocence and bestiality, perhaps it will develop ever more complex characteristics, perhaps it will grow in dimensions–moral, psychological, and emotional–that we cannot yet fathom, gripped as we are by conventional modes of thought. When we think of how constraining social conventions–fundamentally and broadly understood–are, such speculation should not strike us too outlandish.

Shame, Rage, and Fascism

Jonathan Lear, in the course of a memorial address to the American Philosophical Association–dedicated to Bernard Williams–noted:

For Williams, shame needs to be conceived in terms of its inner psychological structure, in particular, in terms of internal objects and our relations with those objects. The basic experience connected with shame is of being seen in some kind of bad condition by an observer whose judgment matters. But: ‘Even if shame and its motivations always involve in some way or another the idea of the gaze of another, it is important that for many of its operations the imagined gaze of an imagined other will do’. This is what is involved in shame’s being an internalized emotional capacity, not merely an occurrent emotion in childhood in embarrassing circumstances.

Now, if shame is to function as a complex psychological phenomenon and if it is partially constituted by the imagined gaze of an internalized other, then we will have to admit that this internalized other is, to a significant degree, operating unconsciously. For we need to account for more than the relatively simple phenomenon of consciously experienced feelings of embarrassment before the consciously imagined gaze. In particular, we want to account for experiences that we take to be shame-filled, though they are not consciously experienced as such.

From there on, Lear is off and running, as part of his establishing that:

Williams’ approach to ethical life requires that we turn to human psychology; and the form of psychology required will have to be of a broadly psychoanalytic bent.

The unconscious operations of shame, of course, are of especial interest to therapists and their clients because of their peculiar and particular phenomenological manifestation: feelings of shame are visceral, tinged with a sense of abject humiliation, which, if not allowed to find expedited expression, may be directed outwards in ways intensely damaging to not just the subject but to those around him. Shame is intensively corrosive.

So shame and rage often go together. No one, it seems, is quite as angry, violent, or  murderous as the shamed one. When those feelings congeal into the  basis for a political ideology, they can become more broadly dangerous.

Fascism thus begs for psychoanalytic investigation; some of its central claims–like those of an imagined glorious past, lost to the machinations of a devious Other–rely on the creation of a social and political superego that instills shame in its adherents. The world becomes a stage populated by reminders and monuments of this humiliating defeat, grinning and leering from every corner. The associated shame is relentless in its invidious presence; the only escape from its sensations is a removal of those objects–humans included–that offend. Mere removal will not do, of course. The sensations of shame might only be assuaged by violent, destructive actions.  These become even more frenzied when it is realized that, shamefully, the Other was never a worthy opponent, never one that should have been victorious. The more this inferiority is emphasized, the greater the shame, the greater the rage.

It’s not just ethical life that requires a moral psychology with a psychoanalytic bent; so does politics.

Dexter, Psychopaths, and Vigilante Justice

Dexter provoked a great deal of commentary–as any long-running television serial on a killer-killing serial killer would (and should.) Now that I’ve finished the show–all eight seasons of it, after feeling several times during the sixth season that I would never make it to the end–I’ll throw in my tuppence.

Dexter‘s central conceit–the killings mentioned above–and its attempts to get us inside the head of an introspective, at times tortured serial killer wondering about his humanity, were always likely to need clever shepherding by its directors and writers so as to stave off the implausibility that always threatened to derail it. Most centrally, Dexter was a remarkably sloppy operator, often behaving in ways that should have gotten him arrested and put away several times over. As the show wore on, it became harder to believe that the uncoverings carried out by–in turn, James Doakes, Debra Morgan and Maria Guerta–had not happened earlier and led to his long-term incarceration. So the show did not always succeed in this regard; all too often, I found myself unable to take plot denouements seriously because they rested on exceedingly unlikely developments preceding it.

For all that, Dexter managed to provoke ample conversation about the morality of killing and vigilante justice, which, I presume, will be its central contribution to philosophy classroom discussions in the years to come. (Perhaps I’m being excessively kind in my assessments of its longevity.) There were problems here too, of course: Dexter himself was all too often only concerned with his own mental health, which was befitting a potentially psychopathic killer but which made for little agonizing over the kills themselves; his victims became a little less straightforwardly evil too late and too infrequently; and the Dark Passenger references all too often seemed ridiculous.

The central incoherence with vigilante justice is that it cannot be the norm, it cannot be universalized, it cannot co-exist with systems of law. To tolerate it is to ask for little less than a return to the bad old days–not that they have ever gone away–of unbridled revenge and all the social, emotional and moral costs that entailed. The show’s creators relied on for its appeal to an old weariness with the justice system, one explicitly tapped into in the third season: the machinery of law and justice is antiquated and tired; it moves too slowly; it is worn down by procedural detail; it punishes the good and lets off the bad; it cries out for blunt, fast-acting saviors willing to leap the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the path of those only concerned with letting all of us sleep a little safer at night. 

Because of this reliance on a kind of knee-jerk impatience with the law, the show was perhaps not as genuinely edgy or ground-breaking as it might have been. To do that, it would have had to really push the envelope and show us a serial killer or psychopath who didn’t put on the vigilante hat; it would have had to explore his psychological development with just a tad more nuance. But that would have run the risk of humanizing the psychopath, not treating him as unanalyzable evil.

That’s still a little too risky.

A Puzzle about Karmic Doctrine – Contd.

Reader theendlessknot3d writes in with an interesting comment to yesterday’s post on the doctrine of karma as explicated by Daya Krishna:

You say that karma is working, in the case of B, to bring retribution for a past action, Y, which B had previously inflicted on another, and that A is therefore potentially free of guilt/responsibility for having spilled the hot water on B. A would just be the agent who is ‘used’ by karma to bring about this retribution. But I think the paradox of such a situation is pretty clear: that there is really no such thing as freedom in action, despite the appearance of free will which we would all intuitively think exists. It’s an unfree freedom, since karma informs or utilizes our motivations to bring about the actions which we otherwise think we are freely performing.

But I’d probably say that karma isn’t only being exercised against B through A’s act of spilling the cup, because we know that A deliberately chose to do it. I’d think that, if karma is a true description of agency, there would be a potential argument of infinite regression, since B’s act in his previous or present life also wouldn’t strictly speaking be his act; it’d be another act of retribution directed at some third agent, C, which was caused by C’s act of Z-ing. So it seems that there isn’t a way out of this circular argument with its intrinsic paradox unless we either at least admit to a rendition of the theory of compatiblism or reject the theory of karma outright.

Both these points are useful in that they illuminate the puzzle I was raising. I think there is another facet to the doctrine of karma that arises when you consider that in my original post, I had relied on a too-neat slicing up of events, their causes and effects.

To see this consider that in the original example, A‘s action does not have one effect alone; it has several. It hurts B, but it also spills water on the floor, wets B‘s clothes, perhaps breaks a glass and so on. These effects may in turn impinge on other agents; again, in each case, these accrue because of the affected agents’ pasts. So A‘s actions are not determined by B alone but by a much larger assemblage. Similarly, A‘s action is not the cause of B‘s injuries; it is one of the events–the availability of hot water, fuel for its heating, a glass to hold it in, and so on–that may be causally implicated.  Each of those events’ effects contribute to B‘s injuries; each of them is due to B‘s actions in the past. In ascribing responsibility to A we rely on some ends to guide us: perhaps our society is interested in assigning tort liability and individual actors are the most appropriate loci of causal influence for it. But the presence of the other events  implicated in B‘s injuries means that the deserts for B’s actions flow through multiple channels.

These points do not affect the ones made by theendlessknot3d above; the puzzles of responsibility and free will noted there still stand.

Daya Krishna on the Doctrine of Karma: A Puzzle

During the course of a series of lectures delivered at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 2005–in an attempt to explicate what he saw as one of the primary distinctions between the ‘Western’ and the ‘Indian’ conceptions of the relationship of the individual to society–Daya Krishna noted:

The idea that one may be responsible for actions that have not been taken by one’s own self and that one may be redeemed by someone else’s action [as man’s by Christ] may seem positively outrageous to a sensibility that treats the individual as essentially apart for his relationships with others, relationships in which he may happen to be accidentally involved. The doctrine of karma in traditional Hindu thought primarily reflects this basic presupposition that it would be an immoral world indeed if one were to reap the fruits of someone else’s actions. The monadic morality of the Hindu is thus conceived of in an essentially asocial manner. It does not derive from an other-centered consciousness in which the consequences of one’s actions on others are the subject of one’s focus of attention. Rather, it is the consequences of one’s actions upon oneself which provides the main ground for morality in Hindu thought and thus paves the way for a very different kind of perspective on the entire issue of action and one’s relations with others. At the deepest level, not merely does what one does have consequences upon oneself but, conversely whatever happens to one could only be the result of one’s own actions. Thus, not only do one’s own actions have consequences on oneself, but also, if the world is to be a moral world, nothing else could. [Civilizations: Nostalgia and Utopia, Sage Publications, 2012, pp. 13-14]

This explication of the doctrine of karma raises, I think, a pair of vexing questions.

To see this, consider some actor A that takes action X. The consequences of X can only accrue to A. But Y may have–visibly, in this world–effects that impinge on another being B. For instance, I may tip a cup of hot water–as a cruel joke–on a waiter at a restaurant. According to Krishna, what has happened to B–the waiter–is a consequence of B‘s actions, perhaps in a past life, perhaps in the present one. But A is the actor, the agent, that brought about those effects on B, so are the causes of A‘s actions B‘s actions?

Furthermore, actions are, I presume, within the karmic doctrine, reckoned as good or bad, moral or immoral, a calculus which then plays out in the effects that will take place in the future on their actor. A‘s action X of tipping a glass of hot water–purely for jest–on a waiter is, let’s say, an immoral one: it is gratuitously cruel. A has then presumably accrued a ‘negative credit’ of sorts in the karmic ledger, one which will presumably result in some negative effect on A in the future–again, either in this life, or in some future one. But will A then be chastised for an action, X, that was the result of B‘s actions?

I hope the puzzles of responsibility and action that I had in mind are visible. I welcome clarification if I’ve misunderstood Krishna in any way. (Perhaps Y‘s effects on B are only apparent etc.)

Ethnocentricity, Moral Beliefs and Moral Truth

Adam Etinson writes in The Stone on ethnocentrism (defined as ‘our culture’s tendency to twist our judgment in favor of homegrown beliefs and practices and against foreign alternatives’), skepticism about universal morality and the existence of moral facts as  a response to it, and finally, on whether such skepticism is warranted. To wit, concern about ethnocentrism in the domain of morality finds its grounding in universally acknowledged datum: that disagreements are extensive, intractable (and disagreeable), that ‘culture and upbringing’ play a significant role in such clashes. Is moral relativism or skepticism about the existence of objective moral facts an appropriate response?

Etinson thinks not:

For one, however obvious it may be that culture plays an important role in our moral education, it is nevertheless very hard to prove that our moral beliefs are entirely determined by our culture, or to rule out the possibility that cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts….Second, moral relativism, for its part, seems like an odd and unwarranted response to ethnocentrism. For it’s not at all clear why the influence of culture on our moral beliefs should be taken as evidence that cultures influence the moral truth itself  — so that, for instance, child sacrifice would be morally permissible in any community with enough members that believe it to be so. Not only does that conclusion seem unmotivated by the phenomenon under discussion, it would also paradoxically convert ethnocentrism into a kind of virtue (since assimilating the views of one’s culture would be a way of tapping into the moral truth), which is at odds with the generally pejorative understanding of the term.

These are curious responses to make.

The first is made in the face of the acknowledged data (about disagreement over moral beliefs and the existence of cultural variance in moral practices). If ‘cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts’ then surely there should be greater agreement over our moral beliefs? Perhaps Etinson takes our existing moral agreements to be the evidence of such influence, no matter how attenuated?

The second response, contra moral relativism, assumes that there is a ‘moral truth’ out there, one influenced by cultures. But the skepticism about moral facts that goes by the name of ‘moral relativism’ is not committed to any such truth; it takes all its cues from its claim that the empirical particulars of cultures generate moral beliefs, which vary by time and place. That kind of relativism does not think that a ‘moral truth’ is the product of a culture’s influences; rather, the culture merely generates a set of permissible actions. There is no commitment here to the notion of a moral truth that would be made accessible by ‘assimilating the views of one’s culture’; rather one brings oneself into line with one’s culture and what it deems permissible by assimilating its views. (Note that Etinson himself, in writing of ‘moral truth’ in connection with moral relativism adds the caveat, ‘for any given people.’) This would ensure that ethnocentrism retains its non-virtuous standing, a concern important to Etinson, for presumably it leaves open the possibility that these sets of permissible actions could remain the subject of moral critique.  But having made this concession, a further question is almost immediately prompted: isn’t the assumption of objective moral truth and facts our primary, if not sole, reason for imagining ethnocentrism to be non-virtuous in the domain of morality? If so, then is Etinson’s skepticism about moral relativism warranted?