Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

95. Beyond Guardian and Commercial Ethics

Note: This post is the ninety-fifth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week's topic is German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his efforts to discover a 'genealogy' or origin for our moral sentiments.

The first time Nietzsche takes on this question is in 'Human, All too Human,' in the chapter, "On the History of the Moral Sensations." There's two main passages in this chapter that seem relevant to our series on ethics.

The first, is paragraph 94, 'The three phases of morality hitherto':

"It is the first sign that animal has become man when his actions are no longer directed to the procurement of momentary wellbeing but to enduring wellbeing, that man has thus become attuned to utility and purpose: it is then that the free domination of reason first breaks forth. An even higher stage is attained when he acts according to the principle of honour; in accordance with this he orders himself with regard to others, submits to common sensibilities, and that raises him high above the phase in which he is diverted only by utility understood in a purely personal sense; he conceives utility as being dependent on what he thinks of others and what they think of him. Finally, at the highest stage of morality hitherto, he acts in accordance with his own standard with regard to men and things: he himself determines for himself and others what is honourable and useful.; he has become the lawgiver of opinion, in accordance with an ever more highly evolving conception of usefulness and honourableness. Knowledge qualifies him to prefer the most useful, that is to say general and enduring utility, to personal utility, general and enduring honour and recognition to momentary honour and recognition: he lives and acts as a collective-individual."

There are a couple of points to highlight here. The first is the notion of patience or prudence, favouring the long run over the short run as central to morality, in particular to personal morality that maximizes one's utility. The second is the division of morality into a personal stage based on utility and an inter-personal phase based on honour. How similarly this resembles our split between a guardian syndrome filled with precepts governing our relations with others and a commercial syndrome which is primarily concerned with maximizing our own utility (although the commercial syndrome also covers inter-personal relationships manifested via trade).

The second passage is paragraph 45, 'Twofold prehistory of good and evil':

"The concept good and evil has a twofold prehistory: firstly in the soul of the ruling tribes and castes. He who was the power to requite, good with good, evil with evil, and also actually practices requital - is, that is to say, grateful and revengeful - is called good; he who is powerless and cannot requite counts as bad. As a good man belongs to the 'good', a community which has a sense of belonging together because all individuals in it are combined with one another through the capacity for requital. As a bad man belongs to the 'bad', to a swarm of subject, powerless people who have no sense of belonging together. The good are a caste, the bad a mass like grains of sand. Good and bad is for a long time the same thing as noble and base, master and slave. On the other hand, one does not regard the enemy as evil: he can requite. ... Our present morality has grown up in the soil of the ruling tribes and castes."

Unlike the previous quote, which is never really revisited much in Nietzsche's writings, this notion of the twofold origin of good and evil will be discussed in much greater length, first in the chapter 'The Natural History of Morals' in 'Beyond Good and Evil' and finally at book length in 'The Genealogy of Morals.'

As he moves along, Nietzsche seems to become less certain about the morality level of Europe, and gradually begins to attribute the growing prevalence of 'slave' morality in Europe as being due to religious influence, from Christianity and Judaism. But the notion of two different systems of morality, one based on the ability and willingness to take vengeance and one based on non-violence persists in his thinking.

In 'The Genealogy of Morals' Nietzsche identifies certain cultures as 'noble races' that hew to 'master race' morality such as the "Roman, Arabian, German, Japanese nobility", as well as the "Homeric heroes and the Scandinavian vikings." This is contrasted with primarily the Jews, but also on occasion the Chinese as cultures with primarily 'slave' morality. It seems unlikely to be coincidence that the two cultures that Nietzsche identifies as being emblematic of a 'slave' morality that doesn't use violence or take vengeance are two cultures that are renowned the world over for the commercial success of their citizens.

Having said that, Nietzsche never really identifies salve morality with commercial culture. At first I thought that maybe that was just because Nietzsche was so guardian minded that he didn't even acknowledge the existence of commerce (even a guardian-type like Aristotle deigned to denigrate commercial ethics as base and shameful). But as 'The Genealogy of Morals' goes along, Nietzsche shows his awareness of commercial culture as he traces our notions of guilt and personal obligation and even justice back to the "...oldest and most primitive relationship between human beings, that of buyer and seller, creditor and debtor." So it wasn't that he was unaware of commercial ethics, he just didn't link it up with 'slave' morality explicitly.

So, it's not a perfect match, by any means, but still the notion of two ethical systems, one based on 'noble' races that are barbaric and love conquest and take vengeance and have good manners and one based on 'slave' races that shun violence, don't (can't) take vengeance and is associated with successful commercial cultures certainly lends some support to the notion that Nietzsche was working his way towards the notion of Guardian and Commercial ethics, although his remarkably strong guardian mindset may have skewed his observations somewhat.

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