For most of us, our first encounter with “morality” comes through our parents (or parent figures). As we graduate from babyhood to toddler status and beyond, we are handed an ever more complex litany of “rules”. Those who follow these rules earn the title “Good Boy” (or Girl) along with the emotional and material perks that accompany such an honor. Of course, those who are less compliant are called “Bad” and suffer the emotional and sometimes physical consequences of that designation.
What is “the genealogy of morals” (the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche)? As children, we imagine that these commands have a transcendent source (or at least an objective basis). Only much later do we realize that they are designed primarily to make our behavior easier to control and so make our parents’ lives marginally less difficult. This is the subjective dimension of childhood morality.
There is also a communitarian dimension. Extended family members, neighbors and school officials have certain expectations regarding the behavior of the children they encounter. A failure to meet those expectations reflects badly on the parent as well as the child.
Yet that is still not the whole picture. Rules are also intended to help children live physically safe and socially successful lives. This is the utilitarian dimension.
It would be interesting to speculate on the extent to which parents understand the subjective, communitarian and utilitarian roots of morality and, conversely, the extent to which parents imagine a transcendent origin to their moral codes. But that would take us beyond the scope of this essay.
Of course, morality does not end with childhood. We are forever exhorted and expected to live moral lives.
When I was still in elementary school, my grandfather explained to me that the Ten Commandments and all the other precepts of the Torah (the Law) did not reflect God’s will so much as the lessons of human experience. These were the practical life lessons that the Israelites had learned during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. They span diet and hygiene as well as ways of living together in family and community. They were intended to promote physical and social health as much or more than spiritual wellbeing.
Much later in life, I encountered philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche. If my grandfather viewed morality as social convention, in the most part harmless and perhaps marginally helpful, Marx and Nietzsche held much more cynical views. For them, morality consists of laws imposed by ruling elites on subordinate classes, designed to benefit the former at the expense of the later. These laws and mores reinforce the power of the one over the other and further the course of exploitation, economic and otherwise.
According to Marx and Nietzsche, moral phylogeny recapitulates moral ontogeny: morality plays the same role in macro class structure as it does in micro family structure. It reinforces pre-existing power relations. And, as far as that goes, they’re essentially right!
Both authors also offer a utilitarian analysis. Mark links morality with control over the means of production. In every instance, moral precepts are deigned to reinforce behaviors that result in increased productivity.
Morality is also concerned with the distribution of goods. During feudal and capitalist eras, morals encourage the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few; in a post-Revolutionary socialist era, morality will require a much more egalitarian distribution of those goods. In a truly Communist society, the workers will own the means of production outright (no state) so morality may become obsolete.
For Nietzsche, morality comes in two flavors: there is ‘master-morality’ and ‘slave-morality’. Master-morality is aristocratic morality; it is characteristic of ancient Greece and Rome and of the Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe (among others).
Slave-morality, on the other hand, is the morality of “the abused, the oppressed, the suffering, the unemancipated, the weary, and those uncertain of themselves…It is here that sympathy, the kind helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility and friendliness attain to honor.”
According to Nietzsche, slave-morality is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian message. “The wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation…”
For Nietzsche, slave-morality violates human nature and saps the human enterprise of all its creativity and vitality. “To refrain mutually from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one’s will on a par with that of others… (is) a principle of dissolution and decay.”
How radically that contrasts with the teaching of Anaximander, the father of Greek philosophy; for him, things come to be precisely by granting each other ‘reck’ (consideration)!
According to Nietzsche, “life is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity…and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation…life is precisely will to power.”
“The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: ‘What is injurious to me is injurious in itself;’ he knows that it is he himself only who confers honor on things; he is a creator of values. He honors whatever he recognizes in himself; such morality equals self-glorification.”
So-called slave-morality finds its justification in the Other while master-morality finds its justification in the Self. Accordingly, Nietzsche associates the “modern” concepts of “freedom”, “progress” and “the future” with slave-morality.
For Nietzsche, the aristocracy is not an expression of society; it is the meaning of and the reason for society. “Society is not allowed to exist for its own sake, but only as a foundation and scaffolding, by means of which a select class of beings may be able to elevate themselves to their higher duties and in general to a higher existence…”
Morality is not legislated; it is lived. “It is obvious that everywhere the designations of moral value were at first applied to men; and were only derivatively and at a later period applied to actions.”
But then Nietzsche goes on to identify man with his actions: “And just exactly as the people separate the lightening from its flash…so also does the popular morality separate strength from the expression of strength, as though behind the strong man there existed some indifferent neutral substratum, which enjoyed a caprice and option as to whether or not it should express strength. But there is no such substratum, there is no ‘being’ behind doing…’the doer’ is a mere appanage to the action. The action is everything.”
The act is the man. I am what I do and I do what I am, nothing more nothing less!
So much for ‘morals’; what about ‘values’? As we saw above, morals are subjective, utilitarian and culturally relative. Different cultures, different nations, different families may cling to radically different moral codes.
Values, on the other hand, are universal. They apply to every possible culture, nation, family; they apply to every possible universe. They may be expressed differently in different places and times but the core values themselves never change. They are the principle of Being itself.
Nietzsche uses ‘morals’ and ‘values’ interchangeably (see above). He has to. Nietzsche correctly understands that values, to the extent that they are distinct from morals, must have a transcendent basis. But his ontology does not admit transcendence, so all he can do is identify values with morals and make the ‘noble man’ arbiter of both.
“There exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…but nothing exists apart from the whole.”
In this Nietzsche could not be more wrong! Values are precisely what can and do judge, measure, compare, condemn our being.
Yet I suspect many readers will be tempted to agree with Nietzsche. Don’t our morals reflect our values? Surely the concepts are at least related.
So they are…they are antonyms! A value is the opposite of a moral. While morals emerge after the fact to explain events that have already occurred, or to justify on-going behaviors, or to reinforce pre-existing social orders, values drive the birth and evolution of things themselves; they precede events. This is the sense in which values are the principle of Being.
Nascent entities are motivated by values to grant each other reck (see Anaximander, above). The choice to “put one’s will on a par with others” is a choice driven by values. Far from being “a principle of dissolution and decay”, it is the generative force in action. Creation is not always a matter of imposing our will; more often it is a matter of holding our will in check so that creation can occur outside us.
For Michelangelo, sculpting was not about imposing a form on a marble block; rather it was about cutting away the stone that was concealing the form already latently present in the block.
Both morals and values react to the status quo. Moral-consciousness perceives what it is ‘good’ in the world and seeks to preserve it; value-consciousness perceives what it lacking in the world and seeks to correct it.
I am reminded of Robert Kennedy’s famous line: “Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream of things that never were and say why not?” There is no better illustration of the difference between moral-consciousness and value-consciousness.
Morals (even Marxist morals) are inherently conservative; values are inherently revolutionary. Morals work to reinforce the status quo; values undermine and ultimately overthrow it. Morals embody the longing for stability; values embody the urge to change. Morals reflect the instinct for survival; values embody the impulse to innovate.
Morals are the logical consequences of events. They codify and justify the behaviors of various individuals and social classes. As my grandfather taught, the Torah enumerates and then passes on lessons learned from wandering in the desert for 40 years…history’s all-time greatest social laboratory.
Values, on the other hand, are the logical precedents of events. It was value-consciousness that prompted Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
Values are dreams of things that never were. But this is problematic. Our world consists solely of events. So what could be logically precedent to events? Only something that transcends our world. The phenomenon of value, if real, proves the reality of transcendence. That is why Nietzsche had to deny the real existence of values, even after acknowledging their potential importance and power.
The existence of value proves that there is something “beyond” the spatiotemporal universe, something that acts as its foundation, something that is not transient, something that is not contingent, something that is transcendent. The opening words of John’s Gospel: “At the foundation is the Logos.”
Morality consists of laws, rules and norms distilled from historical events and social structures. Values, on the other hand, are all expressions of one single value, ‘the Good’. The Good is precisely what transcends the world of purely historical events. Nietzsche is right to imagine that historical events by themselves do not disclose the Good. The Good is what is universal and eternal.
Of course, folks will disagree wildly about the application of the label ‘good’ in any concrete situation. That doesn’t matter; what matters is that their disagreement is grounded in a common conception of ‘the Good’ in its most abstract form. Of course, in Christian ontology, that Good is God.
Transcendent values do not come pre-packaged and labeled. In my own mind, I typically identify three transcendent values, three expressions of ‘the Good’ in our world: Beauty, Truth and Justice. But others might delineate their values differently. The important point is that all values are embodiments of ‘the Good’ in varying contexts.
Beauty, for example, is the concern of Aesthetics and truth the concern of Epistemology. There is little overlap here with morality. The value of Justice, however, confronts morality head on. It spans economic (distributive) justice and criminal (retributive) justice. It includes subordinate values like rectitude, kindness and mercy.
Justice requires that folks enjoy the fruits of their labors (Marx) but it also imposes an obligation to care for the poor (John Paul II). It requires the protection of life, limb and property but it also imposes an obligation to be merciful. No wonder Justice is often depicted as a balance scale!
Nietzsche read the New Testament as a manifesto of slave-morality. But, again, he was wrong. The Old Testament reflects both moral-consciousness and value-consciousness. The 613 precepts of Torah are primarily concerned with morality. So are some of the prophets. Job can be read as a dialog between the value-consciousness (Job) and moral-consciousness (his so-called ‘comforters’). But Psalms is a pure celebration of values! To pray the Psalms is to conform one’s mind to the mind of God (and the mind of God is pure value-consciousness).
How about the New Testament? Here there is no pretense of balance. One could even argue that the primary project of the New Testament is to substitute value-consciousness based on the life of Jesus Christ for the moral-consciousness of Old Testament law.
Jesus’ teachings reflect Justice and his life embodies that value. Unlike many of his critics, Jesus does not search rule books (morality) to decide what to do in given situations; he consults his heart and his heart is singularly focused on the transcendent value of Justice, the Good, that is God.
All values originate in God. That makes God the creator, of course, but also the ultimate change agent, the paradigmatic revolutionary. To live without God is not an option. To live without God is, well, to live with Nietzsche. God help us!