Friday, June 26, 2009

I'd like to believe that Nietzsche was wrong

There are lots of things that Nietzsche was insightful on, but I hope that one of the substitutes that he came up with for conventional morality isn't how the world actually is. Nietzsche occupied the same space that radical conservative skeptics of Enlightenment philosophy like de Maistre and Hume staked out. In his book "The Genealogy of Morals" he outlines a true history of western values that subtracts all of what could be called positive values from the picture and instead leaving the sort of impulses that are left when you do that, in this case impulses that are unreasonable and cruel. Nietzsche's project is destructive because he doesn't challenge just a particular morality but questions the existence of morality in general. This is actually fine, except the way that Nietzsche applied this in practice was to take all of the values that western society had ever believed in and negated all of them, and then refused to put substitutes that partook of any of it in its place. That leads to a very tough position, because western morals, from Greece and Rome up to the Church of the Middle Ages, through to the Renaissance and then to the Enlightenment occupy quite a bit of head space, cover a big portion of ground even though compared with the diversity of ideas on morals contained the world over they appear to be really similar to one another. By dismissing all of them together it's like removing an organ from thought, where ideas of reason, ideas of what's right and wrong, ideas of what's normal, get dismissed as categories that we should even think about when we're acting. This leaves us with a kind of unreasoning force or will, but an unsophisticated will, that produces cruelty and rules by violence. The unreasoning part is very important, because without some idea of reason, whether that of the Enlightenment, of the Greeks, or even of the modified version that the Romantics believed in, you're left without any guide to what's truthful and what's not. Truth, consensus reality, go down the drain, and are instead replaced by personal will to power and the threat of violence. And in this scenario you can't object that the violence is wrong because that's your subjective position, one that requires reason to support it, and reason is just another formal manipulation.
And that's what I really object to.

There have been states like what the political philosophers described as the state of nature, even though the societies that they were originally talking about didn't really resemble it, conditions where society itself collapsed and it became every person for themselves, where only strength counted and the ruthlessness to use that strength to exert power over others. Where, to coin a phrase, objecting that something was wrong and that you shouldn't be doing it would be met by a flash of a gun, with threats to go farther. Yet these situations are looked on as tragedies, where untold crimes are committed with impunity, and where order is eventually reestablished, whether by an internal force or an external force. After order is reestablished, there's usually a reckoning of what happened in the meantime, with some sort of justice being applied to the perpetrators of the worst crimes, and usually very harsh penalties meted out to them in order to establish once and for all that a different state of affairs now exists.

To get to this basic social stability which despite the label of 'order' can really be pretty anarchic, there has to be a standard of truth, first of all, a basic belief in some sort of social truth, and a set of morals dictating how people should be treated, which builds on the belief in a common truth. Nietzsche's philosophy says that order like this is bound to fail, because the categories that we use to build such an order are socially and historically conditioned and don't have any existence outside of what we've made them.

I for one like the idea of basic agreements between people about what exists and what doesn't exist, which in practice means something like this: someone hits my car in a minor accident, I get out to talk to them, they say that the car isn't really hurt, there's no problem, no need to call an insurance agency, none of that. Not only do they not acknowledge what they've done, but when pressed they start to question the idea that the conversation should even need to take place, completely refusing to compromise or to act as if my point of view has any validity whatsoever. At that point, things break down, and here is where a state of nature like society and our society really take different pathways. In the state of nature society the only thing available to me if they totally and completely stonewalled me would be to take some sort of physical action against them, or to get backup from friends and do some sort of mass physical action against them. In our society, on the other hand, as much as we might hate them, if something like that happens we can call the police, who are obligated to take our complaints seriously and try to look at what happened with something like an even mindset. We also have our insurance company, that in turn has resources to hire lawyers and to file a complaint with the court system, which is also obligated to take an even opinion of things, and to not take people's blanket, total, denials at face value but to instead investigate them and come up with some sort of reckoning based on what's thought to have occurred.

Both of the systems mentioned, the police system and the court system, are of course flawed, with the police system being much more flawed in my opinion than the courts (if you have enough money to hire and keep good lawyers the courts can be very evenhanded), but I don't think completely flawed. If you're a black kid in a white neighborhood, or an all white town, wearing the wrong clothes, and are accused of shoplifting it can be pretty bad. If you're a white person in that town and you have a complaint that's not political or based on something that's particularly controversial, you stand a better chance of having some sort of justice done for you by the cops. It's not that they don't know wrong from right so much as that those moral evaluations go out the window to some degree when the people involved or the activities involved are seen as threats, threats to their society over and above routine criminal matters. Of course that large black man was threatening that nicely dressed short white woman. But was that similarly dressed white man who lives two streets down really threatening her, or is there more to the story?

There has to be some sort of truth, some sort of moral compass, even if Truth isn't spelled with a capital "T" but is limited to a consensual reality that should at least address what's right and wrong, as opposed to Truth referring to the truth of existence, any sort of higher powers, the origin of the universe, etc..

So I hope that Nietzsche's evaluations, the application that he himself made of his principles in "The Genealogy of Morals" for example, aren't truthful, aren't on target, because the world that he pictures as natural is unnecessarily cruel, to the point where to deny commonly held values and reality becomes a formal exercise in itself, one that's no more true than other mechanical applications of principles to life.

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