May
11

On the Genealogy of Morality

In looking for ideas about how to present the history and connectivity of ideas, I returned to Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, published in 1887. Sharing a few notes with that interest in reading (and only a periphery interest in the arguments of the book).

In the Introduction of the version I read (by Clark and Swensen), Clark offers the following on the historical method of the book: "The purpose served by a thing does not explain its origin; rather, the cause of its coming into being and 'its final usefulness, its actual employment and integration into a system of purposes,' lie worlds apart (GM II:12). Nietzsche's prime example of a violation of this principle is the assumption that the eye was made to see, the hand to grasp. This suggests that his principle of historical method is inspired by Darwin's theory of evolution, according to which the eye's usefulness does not explain why it originally came into existence, but only why, having somehow or other come into existence, it had a greater chance of surviving and being passed on to heirs. To explain how the eye came into existence would be to trace it back through a whole series of previous forms, and transformations of these forms by means of new variations, to something that lies 'worlds apart' from it, say a simple nerve that is particularly sensitive to light. Neitzsche's Genealogy applies the same principle to human history. Questions of origin and purpose are to be separated; the purpose served by a practice or custom does not explain how it came into existence." (p. xxiv)

From Neitzsche (lengthy, as reference for those interested in how this method was described and used):
"we need a critique of moral values, for once the value of these values must itself be called into question—and for this we need a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances out of which they have grown, under which they have developed and shifted" (p. 5)

"How do the previous genealogists of morality carry on in this case? Naively, as they have always carried on-: they discover some "purpose" or other in punishment, for example revenge or deter­rence, then innocently place this purpose at the beginning as causa fiendi [cause of the coming into being] of punishment, and - are done. The "purpose in law," however, is the last thing that is usable for the history of the genesis of law: on the contrary, for history of every kind there is no more important proposition than that one which is gained with such effort but also really ought to be gained,­ namely, that the cause of the genesis of a thing and its final usefulness, its actual employment and integration into a system of purposes, lie toto caelo apart; that something extant, something that has somehow or other come into being, is again and again interpreted according to new views, monopolized in a new way, transformed and rearranged for a new use by a power superior to it; that all happening in the organic world is an over- ' powering, a becoming-lord-over; and that, in turn, all overpowering and becoming-lord-over is a new interpreting, an arranging by means of which the previous "meaning" and "purpose" must of necessity become obscured or entirely extinguished. However well one has grasped the utility of some physiological organ (or of a legal institution, a social custom, a political practice, a for m in the arts or in religious cult), one has still not comprehended anything regarding its genesis: as uncomfortable and unpleasant as this may sound to earlier ears, - for from time imme­morial one had thought that in comprehending the demonstrable purpose, the usefulness of a thing, a form, an arrangement, one also comprehended the reason for its coming into being - the eye as made to see, the hand as made to grasp. Thus one also imagined punishment as invented for punishing. But all purposes, all utilities, are only signs that a will to power has become lord over something less powerful and has stamped its own functional meaning onto it; and in this manner the entire history of a "thing," an organ, a practice can be a continuous signchain of ever new interpretations and arrangements, whose causes need not be connected even among themselves - on the contrary, in some cases only accidentally follow and replace one another." (p. 50-51) 

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Apr
22

Moral History of the 20th Century

Jonathan Glovers' (1999) Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century explores why atrocities occurred – from World War I to the Rwandan genocide – and insight on how we can learn from this history to prevent similar events from occurring again. This "thought provoker" post presents a limited selection of those insights; those interested in conflict studies as well as ethics ought to add this to their essential reading list:

On Nietzsche:

  • "For Nietzsche, this is all misguided… The idea of loving your neighbour is a disguise mediocrity. People too weak to override others disguise weakness as moral virtue, though this may be a necessary stage on the way to something higher: he says that the 'bad conscience is an illness, there is no doubt about that', but goes on to say that it is an illness as a pregnancy is an illness. The man Nietzsche admires will overcome bad conscience, which is the mark of slave morality, and will want to dominate others." (p.14-15)
  • "Some of us drawn to those ideas may feel aghast at where they took Nietzsche. Struggle, egoism, dominance, slavery, the majority having no right to existence, peoples that are failures, hardness, the festival of cruelty, the replacement of compassion for the weak with by their destruction. If such a world is really the result of Nietzsche's thought, it seems a nightmare." (p. 17)

On escalation and the prisoner's dilemma:

  • "It was assumed that countries pursued their national interests and that war was legitimate in support of vital interests. On these assumptions, each country had to plan against being attacked. Although most governments did not want war, they were in a prisoners' dilemma, where individual pursuit of national self-interest made it hard for them collectively to avoid the worst outcome." (p. 193)

On (mis)information:

  • "Governments also want to keep their own public committed to the war. In Britain in the First World War this was the main function of the newly created Ministry of Information. In a document published in 1918 about its work, this was accepted: 'Propaganda is task of creating and directing public opinion. In other wars this work has not been the function of government.' But 'in a struggle which was not of armies but of nations, and which tended to affect every people on the globe, this aloofness could not be maintained.' Sometimes leaders know that an informed public would see the human cost of war as too great, so the facts are carefully filtered." (p. 167)

On "tribalism":

  • "The common view is that real tribes are in Africa, where the same tribal hatreds have been fought out in battles since the Stone Age. Calling the conflict in Northern Ireland is a kind of rebuke: you are behaving like primitive tribes in Africa. But this picture is wrong. These other conflicts are tribal in more than metaphor: in Ireland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere they are literal enactments of tribal hostility as those in Africa. The picture in Africa is wrong too. Some of the tribal divisions are recent creations. The origins of African tribal war and massacre are more complex than the 'ancient hatreds' account allows." (p. 119) 
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