The Unethical in All Ethics

The fact that Man is a being so evidently and constantly in need of ethical control and guidance, a characteristic that ensues directly from Man’s freedom, reveals him as a creature whom neither members of his own species, nor members of others, can reasonably be expected to live with. This is an insight which not even pronatal ethicists make any attempt to hide:

“When one speaks of freedom one usually means the replacing of fixed, inflexible modes of behaviour with individual reactions which are no longer determined by genetic programmes but are rather able to orient themselves by cultural norms. There can be no doubt but that the reduction of the sway of instinct has made it possible for human social life to develop in entirely new ways. (…) But this same reduction has made human beings capable of acting not just independently of genetic programmes but also contrary to the norms of their own moralities (…) Such a being as this, that no longer has to do anything but can do a great deal, is indeed in dire need of morality… (…) We need, for example, to be alarmed by the falling away of that inbuilt inhibition preventing the killing of another member of the same species which exists in many species of animal but no longer in  Man (…) Man is that living entity which brings life’s tendency to consummation by developing the capacity to negate life.” (Vittorio Hösle, Moral und Politik)

This passage brings out very clearly how far any ethics is “playing with fire” that simply presents human beings as “beings in need of morality” without having first raised and decided the fundamental question whether it is morally reasonable to expect human beings – not to mention other animal species – to put up with each other. Those concerned with ethical questions, above all, should be aware that human beings, as animals in whom instinctive inhibitions have been considerably reduced, represent, where no ethical principles restrain them, a constant danger for members of their own species. Like animal-tamers, ethicists make it their business to look for universalizable maxims that might clarify ways of preventing that emergence of an inhuman monster which they know is possible at any time in any human being. It constitutes the fundamental root of the failure of all ethical enquiry – constitutes, so to speak, what is unethical in all (positively understood) ethics – that the question is never posed by the ethicist of what ethical principles can possibly be used to justify the bringing into being of these beings so sorely in need of ethics and morality who can still at any time, be it without or even with the corrective of ethical or moral principles, begin to commit immoral acts. 

In the worst imaginable case the perpetuation of the human race means that people are subjected to torture by other people – something which, for the tortured persons, means the destruction of the ethical structure of the world: tormented by pain, they can no longer act ethically. Every human finds his limit when confronted by instruments of torture and in the application of such instruments there is collaboration by every ethical organization in the world. Because, once filled with physical pain, we find ourselves no longer capable of abiding by any set of ethical principles, be they Kantian, Utilitarian or Stoic; rather, we are thrown back completely on ourselves; when torture reaches its maximum, we are simply incapable of even perceiving the interests of other human beings. (For more details see Cabrera)

Any ethics which does not self-reflectively work through this whole set of problems inevitably becomes the accomplice of those actions counter to morality that necessarily ensue from the free, and thereby partially tendentially inhuman, nature of Man – a point which Paul Ricoeur makes very succinctly when he writes: “To affirm freedom is equivalent to taking the origin of evil upon oneself.” (Paul Ricoeur) Any ethics which, being a theory of morality, fails to question back critically behind the apparent moral self-evidence of continuing to bring new human beings into the world – and thereby of ethics’ true object – becomes, due to this deficiency in self-reflection, obsolete – a kind of “un-ethics”. Considering things from this point of view, Nietzsche is surely not entirely wrong when he advances the following thesis: “All the methods which have hitherto been applied with the intent of rendering Man more moral were, in fact, fundamentally immoral.”

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