The Immaturity of Ethics

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I love reading comments online, so much so that I wrote a dissertation about it. But, something that I have found in researching people talking online is how difficult it is for many people to understand ethics. Especially in this era of hashtag activism and the popularity of social justice and cancel culture, there is a certain immaturity to the way that many people have come to understand ethics and personal beliefs.

From a philosophical perspective there is no standard or pat understanding of ethics. In fact, there are multiple theories and viewpoints on ethics which converge and diverge in a variety of ways. However, the fact that there is not just one ethical worldview has been subsumed within a world that is consumed with popular culture. Instead of understanding that there is more than one ethical belief, we have been made to believe that there is in fact only one right or wrong way to be, or believe, in the world.

I describe this singular and simplistic view of ethics as immature, due to the fact that it is very reminiscent of a childlike faith or untested religious belief. Instead of questioning the views of society and/or what other people have come to view as the Truth, it has become normal to parrot back the talking points of whatever ideology is popular at a particular point in time.

And to some extent, the immaturity of ethics in an American context seems to be an offshoot of evangelicalism and the belief that when you believe something then you should get other people to believe the same thing. Therefore, I am writing this post to explicate a bit more on my own ethical beliefs and give a reasoning for pushing back against an evangelical understanding of ethics in order to embrace the subjectivity and relativism of personal beliefs and ideology.

In this sense, What does it mean to move from an immature understanding of ethics to ethical adulting?

What I Learned from Nietzsche

As a seeker of wisdom, I have always loved discussions of morality, ethics, and the complexity of constructing beliefs around what is Good, Just, and Right in the world. I also love thought experiments, and from the Trolley Problem to the Grue Paradox, I find it easier to understand the world through creating parables and problems to unpack. Which is the primary reason why the philosophical and ethical thought of Nietzsche always stood out to me.

For those who don’t know, most ethical thought is based on a belief in social progress or some type of religious or spiritual belief system, in part because it is very difficult to construct a rational or sound argument for Goodness in a world that was created based on happenstance. In contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche constructed an understanding of ethics which pushed back against the God, or even Good, centered view of the world to propose a deconstruction of the binary opposition between what is good and what is bad about beliefs. Primarily focusing on morality, Nietzsche demonstrates the fiction of morality and the many ways that the pursuit of moral superiority diminishes the strength and drive of unaltered human will.

Specifically, Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morality that “popular morality separates strength from the manifestations of that strength, as if behind the strong person there is an indifferent substrate, which is free to manifest strength or not”. Nietzsche also states that the strong person has “a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph” (Nietzsche).

This idea of the individual “will to overpower” is also expressed in The Will to Power when Nietzsche writes that “Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm” (Nietzsche). Therefore, it would seem that we live in a society where there is a constant power struggle between beliefs and ethics, with one group regularly attempting to assert their own ethics, ideology, or morality over others.

If you haven’t read Nietzsche, I also find the song “No Church in the Wild” to be a succinct summary of what Nietzsche brought to philosophy, and ethics in particular. Specifically, the following lyrics are pure Nietzschean relativism:

“Human beings in a mob

What’s a mob to a king?

What’s a king to a God?

What’s a God to a non-believer

Who don’t believe in anything?”

Instead of relying on the power of religious belief to prove his ethics, Nietzsche also offers this thought experiment, by asking readers and thinkers to think about ethics while also understanding “What’s a God to a non-believer, who don’t believe in anything?” or What does an ethics based on goodness do to human beings that can never truly be Good? And, What is an understanding of ethics and morality that makes room for the human drive to conquer others with their beliefs?

Relativism and the Subjectivity of Ethics

And although my ethics have become less Nietzschean over time, I still believe in moral relativism when it comes to how I view ethics overall. Nietzsche’s questioning of any Truth or belief in the Good (as well as Foucault’s takes on Nietzche’s work with genealogy) has shown me that much of what we value in society is based on sociocultural and religious ideology that usually doesn’t serve individuals. Instead, we have created an understanding of ethics and morality which focuses on collectivism and utilitarianism that continuously leaves out certain groups in favor of majority rule and asserting outdated traditional beliefs.

So, while moral relativism is somewhat controversial (primarily because many people would like to believe that morality is a given), as I noted with the song lyrics, there is truly no church in the wild, and there is no innate Good within the state of nature, regardless of social contract theory. In this sense it is quite possible for one person’s view of the Good or Truth to be another person’s understanding of Evil or a Lie. And these differences, or relativity, when it comes to our personal beliefs and ethics is perfectly unproblematic.

However, what is problematic is how few people can accept that their ethics or beliefs may be viewed as Good/Truth to some people and as Evil/Lie to others. Instead of accepting the relativity of different standpoints and morality, many choose to assert the dominance of their beliefs by pushing their ideology into the public sphere as the only right way of believing. This need to dominate through ethics and personal beliefs is also very Nietzschean and is similar to the concept of the “will to power” that many people are imbued with when expressing their beliefs in the public or private sphere.

In “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, Nietzsche expounds upon this view of the contrast between the Good/Truth and Evil/Lies. For Nietzsche truth is merely “illusions we have forgotten are illusions . . . metaphors which have become worn out”. In this sense, truth is not true in the way that we have come to believe it to be. Therefore, “the venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar”(Nietzsche).

While truth can appear to be lies, as many people propose the validity of truth without actually knowing if the information that they have is true, truth has also been placed in opposition to lies. Truth is therefore lies which are lies that have been told so many times that they have taken on the semblance of what truth is supposed to be i.e. universal, proven fact. In this sense, moral relativism understands that what I believe to be the most ethical and best way to live is always already based on a fiction that I have told myself about the world, other people, and even my own sense of reality.

Consequently, I think that there is a need to pull back from an evangelical or righteous understanding of ethics and personal beliefs. As an educator, my goal in researching, writing, and teaching is never to have people believe whatever it is I believe but for my work to include all of the information that you need to make a decision for yourself. And with that, understanding that no one ethics is better than another and it is possible for all ethics to coexist even if they do not converge.

Evangelicalism and Ethical Adulting

With that being said, one of my pet peeves is when my work is interpreted through the lens of evangelicalism or even a political standpoint. While this may be the purpose of a lot of the work that people do in the world, I would argue that we could all stand to become more adult in our understanding of ethics and personal beliefs. Instead of holding onto the childlike belief that people must agree with us, or that our beliefs are “right” (or Good/Truth), ethical adulting is understanding that the beliefs of others have little to do with our own worldview.

As I have written in previous posts, my view of the world is primarily based in solipsism and an understanding that you can only truly know yourself (and working to understand others is laboring in vain). Therefore, creating a personal ethics or belief system should be focused on constructing a worldview that reflects who you are while recognizing that other people are not like you, and they do not have to be like you in order to exist.

So, instead of assuming that the goal of sharing a bit of ourselves is to sway public opinion or someone else’s personal beliefs, What would it look like to create space for listening to, and being accepted of, differing viewpoints? Similar to the goals of a classroom, Is it possible for all of us to walk through the world with the goal of observing and learning from different experiences and standpoints? And of course, accepting that ethics and beliefs will always go beyond just good and evil.

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