One thing I don’t lay out in my recent Modern Mythology article “Fool King” is what “atheists being better Christians” actually looks like. I just assume people would know this already — it’s all about having a moral compass, and recognizing it’s about protecting and caring for people’s own interests not forcing them to abide by your “ethical aesthetic”. (What it “looks like” to “be good”). Maybe people have fallen so far they don’t even have that sense any more? So let me clarify this point somewhat.
I know personally I can feel those rare cases where something is absolutely wrong or right very clearly. They stand out to me because so much that happens is such a mix of both, or so ambiguous, that there is no clear, single right or wrong. But say you see a child being beaten bloody in front of you, or a group of men in hoods are dragging a black man out of a house. There’s no ambiguity there. Only an imperative, rooted not in a logical absolute but in my own humanity.
Obviously there are people who feel otherwise, or else no one would wear hoods. This is how we are embroiled in an endless culture war, and have been for as far back as history is recorded, in all the various interpretations and perversions of the core text of our ethical imperatives.
A lot of ink gets wasted trying to prove ethics on logical grounds. And of course, much of Western philosophy deals with this, Kant’s Critique of Judgement tries to root a universal ethic from his logical-ontological insights in Critique of Pure Reason. I spent years working through the curriculum of Western philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, etc), and ultimately determining so much of the entire project of Western Philosophy is wrongheaded, at least in regard to ethics. Ethics is more war than proof, more battlefield than classroom. Kant had all that logic and he was still a virulent racist, though not necessarily more so than the “average” for his place and time. And of course, the homeland of rational discourse couldn’t be convinced slavery was wrong by way of any of those arguments. Carl Sagan thought this was the fundamental flaw in the ancient world whose heart in so many ways was Greek. Maybe so. But I would contend this wasn’t an oversight of reason, it was a part of a worldview founded on reason, and this in itself shows a bit of Sagan’s bias in regard to Enlightenment mentality, though he was one of the best of the popularizers of Scientism. (To this extent, at least, I suppose I agree with Adorno and Horkheimer, see The Eclipse of Reason and Dialectic of Enlightnment.)
Ethics aren’t based on any “in the world” universal, it isn’t arrived at by syllogism, it’s an inner voice. In times of clarity, when not muddled by ambiguity and complication, it is distinct and unwavering. Many things that seem right are not, many things that seem wrong are not, all cultures diverge about these things and that’s where ethics becomes an absolute quagmire. Moral relativism is absolutely correct, if you base your ethical judgement in “pure reason.” You have no more right to “right” than the Sambian tribesman who thinks its absolutely proper to rape and torture young boys so as to make them men, and no less faith in reason than Christians ostensibly have in god.
To the contrary, our ethical judgments are innately irrational, and they require us to reify them in the world. The world itself is not ethical, we are, and only to the extent we make them real through our acts. Thus justice has always demanded enforcement, and the corruption of this process is the first order of despots and dictators. Similarly, our ethical sense itself can be corrupted, which was the subject of “The Fool King,” in regard to the specific nature of this perversion.
I wasn’t raised christian, or with any particular “code”. I’ve looked as closely as a person can at this, so far as I can tell, and I’m certain it wasn’t instilled in me as a “thou shalt.” Admittedly, I don’t always listen, fear or emotional fatigue has made me freeze up at times, other times I’ve acted, but it’s always very clear in those cases where there is no ambiguity, and it becomes quite urgent when it’s ignored.
Doesn’t everyone have this “voice”? It is our own voice.
Nietzsche hit this on the mark in his “transformation of the Spirit” in Zarathustra, even if his earlier “slave morality” from Geneology of Morals points in exactly the opposite direction. (I’ve included it at the bottom of this blog post.) He was in many ways a conflicted man, but he saw this clearly: to be ethical, one must integrate their personal drives and impulses with those of the society, and ultimately internalize that synthesis. I return to this idea from Zarathustra repeatedly in the current draft of Masks: Bowie and Artists of Artifice, it is not out of a “thou shalt” but out of our own nature, a “self-rolling wheel,” or, as it’s alternately been translated, “like a wheel rolling out of its own center.”
There are underlying commonalities and all of these seem to return time and again to maintaining the fabric of society. I think Franz de waal is more or less correct about the biological and innate nature of our basic ethical imperatives, though much work needs to be done in clarifying his claims — they helped us survive as a group. (I wrote about this in Narrative Machines, in theoretic terms, but that’s another story.)
My hunch is that all the billions spent on propaganda are mostly to short circuit our innate ethical impulses. “You are alone” — “you should only be out for yourself” — “Your value is your productivity” — “Everyone else is out for themselves and if you let your guard down they will take what you most cherish.”
They crush our instinctive curiosity, our instinctive compassion, our instinctive tendencies to band together in times of crises.
If we let them, we all suffer for it.
This time, regarding the spread of authoritarianism and imminent ecological apocalypse, the stakes are bigger than ever — for once, the literal future of humanity is at stake. Call me Cassandra if you like; this is real.
Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.
Many heavy things are there for the spirit, the strong load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth: for the heavy and the heaviest longeth its strength.
What is heavy? so asketh the load-bearing spirit; then kneeleth it down like the camel, and wanteth to be well laden.
What is the heaviest thing, ye heroes? asketh the load-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.
Is it not this: To humiliate oneself in order to mortify one’s pride? To exhibit one’s folly in order to mock at one’s wisdom?
Or is it this: To desert our cause when it celebrateth its triumph? To ascend high mountains to tempt the tempter?
Or is it this: To feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge, and for the sake of truth to suffer hunger of soul?
Or is it this: To be sick and dismiss comforters, and make friends of the deaf, who never hear thy requests?
Or is it this: To go into foul water when it is the water of truth, and not disclaim cold frogs and hot toads?
Or is it this: To love those who despise us, and give one’s hand to the phantom when it is going to frighten us?
All these heaviest things the load-bearing spirit taketh upon itself: and like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness, so hasteneth the spirit into its wilderness.
But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness.
Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon.
What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? ‘Thou-shalt,’ is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion saith, “I will.”
‘Thou-shalt,’ lieth in its path, sparkling with gold — a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, “Thou shalt!”
The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of things — glitter on me.
All values have already been created, and all created values — do I represent. Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more. Thus speaketh the dragon.
My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit? Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent?
To create new values — that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating — that can the might of the lion do.
To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion.
To assume the ride to new values — that is the most formidable assumption for a load-bearing and reverent spirit. Verily, unto such a spirit it is preying, and the work of a beast of prey.
As its holiest, it once loved ‘Thou-shalt’: now is it forced to find illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things, that it may capture freedom from its love: the lion is needed for this capture.
But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child?
Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.
Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: its own will, willeth now the spirit; his own world winneth the world’s outcast.
Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child. —
Thus spake Zarathustra. And at that time he abode in the town which is called The Pied Cow.