Theories of Righteousness


“God is dead” –Nietzsche, 1883

In truth, this quotation is a lot less controversial than it first sounds. In saying this, Nietzsche did not mean that the Supreme Being had suffered an unfortunate accident; he simply meant that the belief in the Christian God was weakening, and without this belief, the traditional moral code had no basis. Nietzsche's solution to this was to design a new moral code: master morality. Unlike the “slave moralities” of the past, which had all focused on protecting the weak, master morality glorified strength. The desires of the “higher men” should be immediately gratified, and it didn't matter how many “lesser men” were hurt in the process. The goal of this was to free them from the restrictions that these old moral codes bound them by and bring about a race of ideal men, or as he called them, supermen. Of all the moral codes, Nietzsche's could easily be the strangest.

Another moral code is that proposed by the Stoics. Stoicism, as envisioned by the ancient Greek philosophers, revolves around the will. It was the duty of all men to conform their wills to the order, or logos, of the universe. To the Stoic, everything that happened was determined by this logos, not by people, and the appropriate response was to be content in all circumstances, even exile or death. The sage, or idealized Stoic, rejected all passions and was not affected by anything that happened to him. These stoic ideals have survived, more or less intact, for more than 2000 years, and are still around today.

In contrast to the Stoics were the Epicureans. They believed that there was no governing order and nothing beyond the world around us. They also held that, as there was no purpose to existence, everyone should devote themselves to seeking happiness, and tranquility. They believed this could be achieved through moderation in all things, including pleasure, although this last portion was often conveniently forgotten by adherents. This adapted version gives us the phrase “let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” that so expresses the world today.

In contrast to these two fundamentally selfish philosophies, however, we have the altruistic ideals of Utilitarianism. There, all that counts is the total happiness and unhappiness produced, regardless of who experiences it. There are no absolute rules of conduct or principles that cannot beset aside to achieve this, and everyone must be counted equally. If it would make a large number of people happy to have the elusive terrorist arrested, it is perfectly acceptable to imprison an innocent man and say he is the terrorist because the total happiness gained by the group is greater than the unhappiness cased to the innocent man. If you have the choice between rescuing your friend or two strangers from a shipwreck, you are obliged to leave your friend and help the greater number instead. Anything and everything is permitted to further the welfare of all. The ideal ruler is often considered to al least have the properties of a true Utilitarian and, consequently, these principles form the basis for many political policies. These ideas can be seen to have an important effect on our society.

All three of these systems have their ultimate goal as happiness. In contrast, Kant’s ethics are based on duty. An action is determined to be right or wrong based on absolute moral laws, called maxims. It can only be right to act in a certain way if it would be right for anyone and everyone in that situation to act in that way. If it is, then it is a maxim that, in those circumstances, you should act that way. As an example, because the world would be a much worse place if everyone always broke their promises when they say and advantage to doing so, it would be a maxim that nobody should ever break a promise, and thus everyone would have an obligation not to do so. Kant divided all obligations into two groups: hypothetical imperatives, which you only have to obey if you desire a certain result, and categorical imperatives, which you have to obey all the time. An example hypothetical imperative is “if you want to pass the test, you should study for it.” If you don’t want to pass the test, you are under no obligation to study for it. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, are actually just maxims under a new name. I don’t know why there are two terms for these – there just are. Overall, Kant’s ethics are often the closest to the less codified morality used by normal people in their everyday lives.

Unlike these rather complex ways of understanding morality, the Divine Command Theory is much simpler: whatever God says to do is right and whatever He says not to do is wrong. Easy. Unfortunately, there are a few problems. I don’t think any religion has commandments about every possible issue, and even when they do, they don’t always agree. Because of this, there can be a certain disagreement over what the will of God actually is. This difficulty, however, is dwarfed by another: anything commanded by God would have to be accepted, even if it violated normal moral standards. An example of such a command, such as “everyone is to hit the next person he or she sees over the head with a baseball bat” is generally taken a sufficient reason to reject the theory. Thus, certain factors are ignored. First of all, God’s nature does not change. As God is believed to be both omniscient and omnipotent, there cannot be anything that causes Him to change; if there was, God would have already known about it and changed before He gave the first set of commands. And that is assuming that there is something that could change God, a rather unlikely possibility. Another forgotten idea is that God’s commands are not arbitrary: He has a reason for them, even if we don’t understand it. Thirdly, these commands do not stand alone. If God created both the universe and human beings, be it through creation or evolution or whatever, it would make sense that He used worked the same principles into all three. Then God-given morality would, in a sense, resonate with the rest of the universe instead of opposing it. Because of these things, it may be that those who follow the Divine Command Theory could, simply say “God would not command that” and count their theory as still valid. It still couldn’t work for someone who doesn’t believe in God, of course, but aside from that it might.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of moral systems. For example, the Catholic Church supports Natural Law, where everything in nature has a God-given purpose and it is wrong to oppose it, unless counter-indicated. Hume believed that we should depend on our emotions to dictate our morality, while Virtue Ethics says that people should act such that they display virtuous qualities. Situation Ethics treats each case individually, while Agape Ethics requires people to always act out of love, here in the sense of the good of the other, not romance. It really seems that either Nietzsche was wrong about the basis of morality, or that belief in God isn’t as dead as he had hoped.

“Nietzsche is dead” – God, 1900

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