God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?Friedrich Nietzsche
God is dead. At first glance, it seems to be a radical atheistic rhetoric. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote this in the backdrop of a post-enlightenment world, warning us of its consequences. The advent of reason and scientific evidences brought upon tremendous progress while destroying the foundation of existing religious beliefs. Even Christianity, which served as the backbone of Western Civilization, had no answer to this event. Slowly the realization dawned in – there was no good reason to believe in God. Thus we dealt the final blow.
While religion has its problems, the devil must get his dues. It answered the most important questions of human life – those of meaning and morality. Sooner or later every individual confronts the inevitable why – Why am I here? At a point in history where we’ve realized the scale of the Universe and our place in it, the question of meaning becomes terrifying. Our ancestors coped by imagining worlds of unlimited happiness, blissful by nature and superior to the earthly life. But that is no longer true. What is the right action, one asks – the abyss stares back at them. For religious morality has no foundation to rest, and we have no alternative. We’re lost individuals wandering around without reason, unaware of what life is.
Post-Enlightenment demanded a scurry for meaning amongst philosophers. With religion in shambles, all that remained was an endless void. Nihilistic sentiment began to spread through academic circles, and soon would reach society. Before the French Existentialists, philosophers could only tie meaning to God. Even Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, returned to the Knight of Faith, an individual who has placed complete faith in God, towards the end. In a bleak atmosphere, the French Existentialists were a breath of relief.
Led by Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus, they proposed solutions to the problem of meaning. For Camus, meaning could never be found because of the intellectual limitations of mankind. Yet we strive for it and should strive for it, Camus said. For it is the Absurd, the inherent contradiction of human nature, and only by embracing it could we live fully. Sartre and Beauvoir came up with similar notions of the Absurd but suggested that we make our own meaning to confront it. Ultimately, the ideas brought a slight comfort but turned out to be unclear solutions at best.
What one ought to do: Failure of Modern Morality
The Trolley Problem is one of the most misunderstood thought experiments in philosophy. Proposed by Phillipa Foot in 1967, it is considered an unresolvable moral paradox in philosophical circles.
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two (and only two) options:
- Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
What is the right thing to do?
If you do nothing, you chose the death of five people for the life of one. Otherwise, you have effectively murdered the one person to save five. Rather than introducing a paradox, Foot was trying to show the limitation of Modern Morality.
After the Enlightenment, Moral Systems overwhelmingly favor two traditions.
- Utilitarianism: The Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number is the Greatest Good
- Deontology: Goodness is determined by Universal Rules (Rights and Duties)
If one follows the Utilitarian tradition, pulling the lever is the moral choice. Because, in Spock’s words, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Otherwise one might follow the rule “Murder is wrong”, and choose not to pull the lever. Effectively applying Deontological reasoning to the problem at hand. The Trolley Problem intends to show that Moral Decisions are often based on context. Suppose the person in the side track is our sister. The Right thing would be to not pull the lever. This contradicts the universal framework that these moral traditions impose on decision making.
Furthermore, the assumptions of Utilitarianism aren’t particularly intuitive. The fact of the matter is that Humans don’t aim to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. For instance, the Experience Machine thought experiment by Robert Nozick makes the case that it is quite counterintuitive to human nature. Act Utilitarianism is also problematic for it directly leads to a populist version of morality, potentially justifying minority genocide.
Deontology, on the other hand, doesn’t take the context into consideration. For instance, in a deontological framework that upholds freedom of speech, the N word can be used by anyone without consideration for race. But we know that the utilization of the N word by Caucasians isn’t right. A classic example would be the Axe Murderer thought experiment. In Kantian Ethics, lying is morally wrong. Suppose an axe murderer who is in search of your friend asks you about his location. According to Kant, you shouldn’t lie here – it is morally wrong. But our fundamental moral intuition directs us to save our friend, even if have to lie.
In conclusion, the lack of ground and non-parsimony affects moral systems in large regard. Since both can’t be utilized contextually, modern ethical discourse switches from one to another when it suits the discourse itself. This leads to moral disagreements which seems to have no solution
Is Morality Objective: The Cultural Argument
Any Objective Framework begins with a fundamental premise(s) that is universally agreeable. Science has the axioms of the Scientific Method, Mathematics has the ZFC axioms, or Peano Axioms even. What would be such a premise for Morality? Let me introduce the Cultural Argument.
The Cultural Argument claims that there is a set of common virtues that every human beings agree upon. Note that by every human being, we consider those capable of moral reasoning. For instance, we are counting out psychopaths, the cognitively impaired etc. The argument goes as follows:-
- Morality is something that exists in human society.
- The significant difference in moral systems arise culturally – religion, country, language etc.
- Throughout history, in every culture – religions, countries, tribes – there are certain virtues that are common.
- Therefore, these virtues are independent of culture and part of human nature.
Premise 1: Morality is something that exists in human society
Morality answers the question of what one ought to do. It helps us distinguish between the Good and the Bad. There are certain acts that are known to be good or bad. Not to invoke Godwin’s Law, but everybody agrees that the Holocaust was bad. Kindness is universally agreed upon to be good. Hence there must be some universal agreements to what’s good and bad.
Premise 2: The significant difference in moral systems arise culturally – religion, country, language etc.
Across the history of human civilization, moral difference always arise culturally. For instance, an independent youngster hustling to reach the top of the corporate ladder is seen in a positive light in America. The American Dream – we call it. On the contrary, the same person would be pressured by relatives to marry and look after a family in India. The same person is deemed to be living a good life and bad life, depending on the culture. Furthermore, there are almost no moral differences in people of similar cultural roots. You rarely see Middle Eastern Muslims fight amongst each other. This is the cultural difference mentioned.
Premise 3: Throughout history, in every culture – religions, countries, tribes – there are certain virtues that are common.
In Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche presents a study of Goodness in Western Civilization. The book delves into how certain values were considered to be noble in Western history – truthfulness for instance. In a similar way, certain virtues are common in every human culture in history. Love, for instance, is valued in almost every religion including Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. One possible criticism would be the ostracization of homosexuality and inter-faith relationships in religion. In those cases, they don’t consider homosexuality to be a true form of love. Note that love is defined unreasonably, but the virtue of Love still prevails.
Conclusion: Therefore, these virtues are independent of culture and part of human nature.
We know that there are moral truths with universal agreement. If Morality changes across culture, but certain virtues are common across cultures – wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that these virtues aren’t culturally formed but part of human nature itself.
The Conflict Amongst Virtues
Since we have established that certain virtues are inherently valued, how do we prioritize virtues? Suppose you are in school. A student walks up to the middle of the classroom and starts dancing. He is acting on the virtue of self-expression here. Another protests on the grounds of learning as the primary virtue. How do we determine what’s right?
Here’s where telos comes in. It roughly translates into purpose or end. The idea is that social contexts have certain telos embedded into them, leading to the prioritization of one virtue over the others. In our example, the purpose of the school is to provide an education to the students. Learning is the virtue that school values. Hence, one should value learning over expression in school – at least during class.
Multiple Telos: Resolving Moral Conflicts
We have addressed evaluating moral positions on the basis of virtues and telos, but that still doesn’t resolve all moral conflicts. In a situation where both parties have justifiable telos and act on the basis of virtues, how do we decide on the right action?
Let’s imagine an argument between two roommates. Roommate A wants to turn off the fan and B wants to put the fan in the maximum speed. Both have justifiable telos, feeling of comfort in their home and are acting on their virtues i.e are good people. To justify such moral conflicts, one needs a virtue to ground conflicts of this nature. Generosity. We know that generosity is fundamentally good thing. Sure, there are stories of rulers whose generosity led to their downfall, but that’s primarily because they weren’t moral to their kingdom, family and themselves first. Suppose A doesn’t mind keeping the fan until speed 3 and B doesn’t mind reducing the speed by 2 notches. Here they are adhering to their generosity of spirit and compromising on a common ground. Generosity is the virtue that grounds moral conflicts of the highest level.
Morality and the Meaning of Life: The Ubermensch
One significant problem left behind by the Death of God was the lack of meaning – the Why of human existence. When we understand the nature of morality, we realize human nature shares common virtues amongst everyone. However, there are also personal virtues that make people different from each other. For instance, Socializing is a virtue that isn’t necessary to be moral but distinguishes introverts and extroverts. Personal virtues like these enables us to live as unique individuals.
Nietzsche introduce the concept of the Ubermensch in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. While it isn’t yet clear what he means by it, there is a interpretation of it based on the context of his works.
The Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth!Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue
I entreat you my brethren, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of supra-terrestrial hopes! …
Behold, I teach you the Übermensch: he is this lightning, he is this madness! …
Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is called Übermensch.”
In his works, there is often a strong emphasis on discovering who you are and enacting on it. He even calls himself the first psychologist amongst philosophers. Based on the understanding of virtues, the Ubermensch and contexts of his works, here is definition of the Ubermensch
Ubermensch: An Individual who has maximized their virtues, moral and personal, in all dimensions possible. A Beautiful being with limitless potential, invigorating one with excitement, affirming life itself
The quest of moral grounding and meaning has taken upon multiple forms over the years. From philosophers to artists, writers to hippies, everybody has looked across the stars and pondered the reason for living. Our entire political discourse has been overshadowed by conflicting grounds of moral reasoning. We must realize that “God is dead” was a warning. Modernity was meant to be a transition, it is now a disease.