Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ethics Lecture March 5: Drive & Desire, Nietzsche & Rand

BCC Ethics
Eric Gerlach


Last time talked about Mill, Utilitarianism and looking at the Ends of acts rather than beginnings.
So far, we have been concerned with collectivist, not individualist ethical concepts. This time we talk about drive, desire and self interest, reading Nietzsche but also looking at a thinker important in American thought who takes this sort of thinking in an entirely different direction, Ayn Rand. With modern times and increasing technology that enables the individual comes new individualistic thinking and criticism of more collectivist traditional thought.

While Nietzsche and Rand both believe the individual should try to create something in the name of the self, Nietzsche says this is because no one is simply right while Rand says that she and her school of thought, Objectivism, are simply right. Myself, love Nietzsche, hate Rand. Both are critical for looking at modernized society.

There are many positive and negative things about individualism over collectivism. When individualism is a problem we call it ‘selfish’ to label it bad, but our society sees more than just evils in individualism and self-centeredness. As society has become modernized, it is up to the individual to regulate themselves and keep themselves in line. Foucault is the big thinker on this point (who was very influenced by Nietzsche). This means that individualism is just as much praised, as ‘self-starting’, ‘self-reliant’, that one should have ‘self-esteem’ (this is the repackaged ideas of Rand by Brandon, as it is scorned as ‘selfish’. There are many ways today that individuals are more enabled to be individuals than ever before, and it is very bound up with America being both the best and the worst so far in many things that civilizations have been doing from the beginning.

While America is very individualistic as a culture, with positive and negative aspects, it is important to recognize that ‘Western’ white European people are not individualistic by culture starting with the Greeks. This is unfortunately how it is often presented, that Greece was a very ‘human’ and ‘individualist’ place, and that’s why the West is so the West vs. all other cultures. As you know, I am a big fan of saying that the West is a bunch of enabled, wealthy HUMAN BEINGS, and so when they get ‘humanist’ they are actually getting stuff and culture.
When we look at Japanese teenagers in Tokyo and Kyoto, we can see profound individualism (like in the rising ‘Street Culture’ and Art that is shared the world over today beyond cultural differences).

Good evidence for this can be seen in a recent experiment where rural African children were given laptops and the researchers were surprised when the results showed that there was no lag time of any length in the learning compared to American urban children. The researchers all assumed that individualistic-culture raised children would be able to master laptops faster.

Thus, the Greeks and the Renaissance were ‘humanism’ rising, but only because there were surges of wealth and culture, just like in Baghdad 1000 years ago and in China before that. One should expect to see rises, not simple ‘achievements’ of freedom of thought, diversity of opinions, inventions and innovations, etc whenever a city or area becomes enabled. Americans, because of the last 150 years and due to geographic positioning, have become far more enabled and innovating than other areas of the world but we should not fool ourselves in thinking that we are the good culture that owns this, either genetically (by ethnicity) or socially (by form of politics, religion, or science).

In the context of ancient cosmology, individualism and self interest are typically BAD.
Consider that the big ONE is more important and ranks all of the little branches. Many has been characterized as bad and One as good on both an individual and social level. With modern individualist thinking and development, diversity becomes a good thing, both for the individual (post modern conceptions and novels, movies etc) and for the social (multiculturalism, in America called “the melting pot”).

Consider a tree. The more the branches, the larger the trunk has to be to support them, and the larger the trunk, the more branches are needed to feed the tree. Individuality and community are mutually supportive. While traditional society favors the collective and modern society prizes the individual, both can help each other in balance.

While individualism can be too extreme (for me, Rand is just this in particular ways, such as calling her group ‘Objective’ with a capital ‘O’ for praising selfishness) we are now waking to new levels of seeing how the individual can support the group and the group support the individual. This makes individualism and emphasis on drive, the self, and survival forces of GOOD (regardless of what one thinks of Nietzsche or Rand) and thus important for our Ethics even though Ethics has largely ignored individualism to concentrate on the collectivists dueling back and forth (most famously Kant and Mill, both of whom Nietzsche hated).

NIETZSCHE (1844-1900)

Nietzsche is often called the first modern thinker. In fact, depending on whether you say we live in modern or post-modern times, he is called the first modern OR post-modern thinker. He is without doubt one of the most influential philosophers of modern Europe, and most skeptical thought is now deeply in his debt.

Nietzsche came from a long line of protestant Lutheran preachers. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s father died when he was very little, and though his family sent the boy to school to become a preacher and theologian (like Hegel, Heidegger and many other German thinkers) Nietzsche rebelled and turned to philosophy.

German Pessimism and Schopenhauer:
Just before Nietzsche’s birth, Germany had been going through a great period of pessimism. Just like in China, Egypt, Greece and everywhere, human thought flourishes in the period after tragedy and warring states because people are forced to turn against old conceptions and institutions and ask hard questions that become very popular in these sorts of times.
German princes came together to crush the popular people’s movements for individual rights, and there was a great turning away from the German reason of Kant towards the German will of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Since reason failed in the world, the world is not a reasonable place but a tough place in which it is hard to push for what one sees as beautiful and true.
Marx wrote in this time, for this crowd.

Schopenhauer is deeply influenced by Buddhism and Indian thought, in a very pessimistic way.
He uses the image of a ship bobbing on the water, just hanging on in a watery, stormy ocean of a world. Rather than believe in a reason beyond, having the stomach to see the harsh reality of the situation became a value, a value that skeptical thought has retained.

German pessimism, including its famous thinkers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, flourished in two more recent periods of pessimism: WWI for Europe and Vietnam for America. In fact, Nietzsche was the original guy who said ‘my home country is stupid and think they are awesome’, bashing Germany and all things German quite openly, for which he has been honored as not only individualistic but incredibly courageous. Thus European thought following WWI and American culture following the 60’s (Berkeley a key player in this) found deep meaning in calling their society and ‘the system’ a bunch of chumps.

Nietzsche vs. Morality:
The text I gave you to read is ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, in which Nietzsche asks us to look at humanity critically and see that following the rules (like Kant) or ‘the greater good’ (like Mill) is for sheep. The individual rises above the masses and sees things in a new way. Nietzsche came up with these ideas reading Kant and Mill, reacting against their overall goods for everyone evenly. For Nietzsche, inequality are the beautiful mountain ranges to climb and conquer.

Nietzsche was a staunch individualist, believing that ANY group morality is a slave morality, and he called Christianity, Scientific ‘Objectivity’, German Nationalism and German Racism (very much centered in Anti-Semitism) out on this vocally. Again, he is seen as a hero by many for this. Consider: “When we create the master race, we will have to mix in a lot of Jews to get their good qualities”, a joke considering that Nietzsche would never advise creating a master race of equals but rather loves the individual who stands above the race as a herd.

It was a shame that Nietzsche was censored and used by the Nazis to support their ideas of the beautiful rising German will of the master race, taking Nietzsche’s individualism and twisting it into a racial and social doctrine. Nietzsche intended his words for individualists, as he says over and over again. In this, they famously used his concept of the Superman (and yes, Nietzsche is the first person on record to use this phrase, the UBERMENCH) to mean not the artist or visionary who creates but the German race.

Nietzsche vs. Nihilism:
While many would say ‘Nietzsche believes in nothing, then”, this would not be true. Nietzsche was just as vocal about believing in something as he was about not believing the herd mentality. Nietzsche saw himself as a new sort of thinker who would be followed and imitated by many. Because of this, he warns over and over again NOT to make his thought into a school or a system. However, he did not believe like Schopenhauer that one could believe or not and it makes little difference. Nietzsche believed that the whole worth of the individual is that, in the face of nothing being absolutely true, staring into the void of being, you create something and stand for something in a beautiful way, creating your own meaning in life. He was very critical of ‘Nihilism’, believing in nothing, thought this is just what his critics, religious and not, have called him.

Nietzsche believes in Heraclitus and Hegel’s Becoming between Being and Nothing. He avoids believing in eternal positives, but also believing in nothing whatsoever. It is the overturning of the old into the new by the true individual who wills something created beyond themselves and the world that stands in the face of Nihilism that Nietzsche sees as modernity’s greatest threat. He sees a world where everyone sits on their couch, believes in nothing but is afraid to contradict the state or church and do SOMETHING other than sit there.

Thus, Nietzsche relentlessly bashes reason and judgment in himself and in others, but he believes that you must have the courage to create as a contradictory and mortal being.

Nietzsche’s bashing of women: An Interesting Example of Nietzsche’s Skeptical Individualism
One of the most beautiful and deep parts of Nietzsche’s writings is his turn in Human, All Too Human from bashing Kant and others for believing in objective truth to say ‘here are some of my truths’ and without warning start bashing women repeatedly including the famous “When you go to woman, do not forget your whip”. The beauty of this philosophical performance, what inspires Bataille and Derrida, is that Nietzsche here is showing you both sides of himself at once. Unlike Kant or Mill who are writing like they can be consistent and not contradict themselves in the building or seeing of the truth, Nietzsche knows the truth is psychological and complex, and that beauty comes from tension and pain. Thus, even in his bashing he knows he is a human being and flawed. This has had an amazing impact on Art and Literature (particularly since Bataille and his open obscenity in following Nietzsche).

Passages of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:
N starts off with asking, why do we want or suppose we can simply get truth? Philosophy seems like it has barely even gotten started. Asking this question is perhaps the greatest risk: nihilism can result from q of ‘truth’.
Read BGE (2)
Faith in opposite values: categorical Ts and Fs, such that we can fully know.
Notice ‘frog perspective’, maybe same as frog in well of CT.
Read (3), selection. Instinct to simplify things in ‘truth’ but complex
Read (4), ending. “philosophy beyond good & evil”, this is first time title in the book.
Read (5) start and selection. Philosophers as naïve, trusting so far, critique of Kant. Why?
Read (6), middle. Naïve, because ALL DRIVES can pose as ‘truth’ or ‘good’.
Read (16) start: Notice beyond even Schopenhauer here. Thinking conceals itself such that we cannot be simply certain of it any way. (Notice lead to Freud here)
In 17, speaks more of the deceptive power of language to simplify things for us and shape our world. He mentions resemblance of Indian, Greek and German philosophy, says it is clearly explained by language- fits with growing German- our picture.
Why is language deceptive? How does grammar lie? Read (24), start and end.
Language, and science, have to simplify the world by making strict oppositions out of what is actually subtleties of gradation. Language, philosophy and science make things black and white, but things are actually shades of grey between ideals and extremes.
Nietzsche says that truth is alive, and doesn’t need such simple and artificial scaffolding as our beliefs or our knowing we are right. We should enjoy being wrong.
Read (25) start: Truth needs no protectors- or categorical certainties.

Says falsehood is the surest fact, continually in all truth and discovery.
Read (34), middle to end. Philosophers need to suspect the certainties they have taken for granted, and grammar plays a serious part in the simplifying deception, he says even poison against life. (Note: Hegel’s judgment is the one sided acid).
Also Great: (78), (94) (126)

AYN RAND (1905-1982)

As said, I like Nietzsche’s individualism much more than Rand. I believe Nietzsche takes his individualism too far, to the point that he values it above collective truth where I would rather have a balance of individual and collective goods, both being equally enjoyable and profitable for human beings. Ayn Rand, however, takes what is beautiful in Nietzsche and rams it straight into the ground like the head of an ostrich.

For starters, to give fair warning, Ayn Rand believes that all Philosophers have simply been too stupid to see that reality is right in front of our eyes, that we see real objects, and there are times (MOST of the time for her and her Objectivist followers) when we are just right and others are just wrong and we should simply say so. While this can come in a good form as ‘self esteem’, it is easy to see why philosophy people bash her writings, say that she has never read any philosophy and since she now proposes to simply answer all of the deepest questions correctly with simple and obvious answers she has no idea what philosophy actually is. It is pointed out that she is very popular with individualist people who have never studied philosophy but not with philosophy students. This charge can be quite elitist, but in my opinion it is somewhat justified. What would Nietzsche think of common American people who have not studied great works but come together as ‘Objectivists’ in groups to say over and over again that they are objectively right and everyone who disagrees is simply wrong? He would say that they are hardly enabled individuals, but rather a herd suffering herd delusions of objectivity, like Kant but far less educated.

On the other hand, Ayn Rand is very much a popular, common person’s American Realist philosopher. American Realists, who actually come from Scottish realism, believe in the positivist position (reality is real, self is real, we perceive real objects for real, and one can simply judge things to be true or false, for real) and believe that philosophy, even the positivists like Kant and Aristotle, have been led astray by skepticism and compromised their positions. The problem for philosophy professionals is that, unlike the realists, Rand believes that she is simply right and there are no problems and the rest of philosophy is meaningless, which is a position that even hardcore American realists cannot support.

Rand’s life and Pro-Capitalism, Objectivism Stance:
Ayn Rand is big in America because she defected from Soviet Russia and embraced America as Objectively right. This is why she has reading rooms dedicated to her in Marine academies and other hard core pro-American institutions. She is anti-collectivist like Nietzsche, but thinks that the Soviet Union is simply wrong and collectivist while America is simply right and individualist.

Ayn Rand believes in the value of Selfishness, termed better by Brandon as ‘self esteem’.
You may remember it: it has become a Neo-Con staple and artifact of the 80s.
Argue against Freedman’s (free market) argument that selflessness is an ideal never obtained, so we are based in the self and selfishness as anchor. Each is an extreme, and balance is best.

Think of how Nietzsche would weep at the end of Atlas Shrugged, after the collectivists have ruined society, Rand has her hero trace a dollar sign over the ruins. Praise of selfishness and the all-mighty dollar in a neo-con fashion are the truth that will lift society back up for Rand.
For Nietzsche, belief in the dollar or America is a sheep-like fiction for killing your individuality, not supporting it or lifting society up as a whole.

My Three Moments of Hating Ayn Rand:
End of her speech to Marine graduating class of 1975: ‘and that’s why my philosophy is the only true philosophy’…

Her ejection of Nathaniel Brandon, the ‘King of Self Esteem’, from her Objectivist school after she found out he was two timing her with a model (thought this seems selfish, just not for Rand).

Her attempted cover-up of her lung cancer (from which she died) because she had been very vocal about how doctors who said cigarettes cause cancer are simply wrong and she ‘knew it objectively’.

The Moral of the Story:
You should stand for yourself, and have self esteem, but do not let it blind you into going on and on about how you are right such that you are not critical of your views or the views of those who agree with you (in a school or otherwise). As Hegel says, it is fine that each individual believes themselves at first to be simply the positive truth, but it is important to be critical of oneself in order to develop the self. Doing things for the self and others should be mutually supportive, in balance.

There is decent evidence from biology that human beings are designed to balance self and other interest, and that selfishness kills the individual and isolates them from the supports of society. Angry and judgmental people naturally isolate themselves and have shorter life spans. Having a pet increases your life span, so caring for others is good for your individual self.

As we will see in Violence week, Lt. Grossman tells us that people will stand up in fire for random strangers in particular situations entirely independent of personality.

Thus, self interest is important for ethics and balance, but not as the sole anchor in the way that Kant and Mill try to make principle or ends the sole point of action.