Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

I argue in my moral philosophy that our highest ethical goods are to maximally flourish in our power and in our will to power. When I say this, many immediately assume that my ethics must be quite at odds with the sorts of concerns for selfless respect for duty and for the autonomy of all agents and for moral fairness, and for moral universalism that Immanuel Kant champions. In some ways this is true. But in this post I will overview some of the ways that my moral philosophy accounts for the value of these vital parts of the moral life that Kant designed his philosophy around explaining and affirming. I will also explain some of the ways that distinctively Kantian categories are highly valuable and influential to me, even as a Aristotelian Nietzschean. I will explain all these concepts in ways that will not assume any familiarity with Aristotle, Kant, or Nietzsche, so that those unfamiliar with academic philosophy might be able to easily follow along and not be lost in a sea of philosophy in-references that mean little to them.

In my view, what it means to maximize my power is to thrive as much as I can in all the powers that constitute me. I only exist insofar as the activities in my body and brain happen. I am what happens when my body and brain do certain things or have certain effects in the world. So, minimally for me to flourish in any way whatsoever, I must start by doing well these things that make me happen at all. The more I can flourish in the powers that make me be, the more I bring myself into being, and it is axiomatic that this is good for me. I am me. How could it be good for me for there to be less of me?

But this is a lot of “me me me”. Isn’t ethics about more than me? What about respecting other people and what about obeying moral duties even when they conflict with what is good for me? Are not these the things that morality is really concerned with?

I would say these things are important. But the reason I put concern for “me” as the highest priority is that, at the end of the day, a supposed moral duty which would obliterate the species would be irrational to obey. If by “moral duties” we mean things that we must do, then it would be pure foolishness for them to be things that would obliterate us. Reason was naturally selected for us because of its remarkable, unrivaled effectiveness for teaching us how to navigate the world and accomplish our interests in ever more powerful ways. Reason is good for us in ways that go beyond mere survival needs of course. But ultimately choices about actions are still choices about how to flourish. No group should be prescribing for its members moral rules that ultimately do not benefit them.

And when a moral command impresses us strongly with the sense that we must do something, the urgency and insistence of the command ultimately needs to justify itself as being in our interest or it’s a dubious command which serves someone else’s (or no one’s) interests at the expense of my own. And how can it be rational for me to ultimately violate my own interests? If obeying a given command has that ultimate effect, then to accept it as binding upon me would be equivalent to suicide. It cannot be in my interest in that case. And I do not see how it could be rational for me, given that I am me, to act contrary to my own interest in such a way.

But are not the highest moral acts ones of self-sacrifice? Is not the point of morality to get us to do the things we must do that go against our own self-interests? If nothing can go against our own self-interests then are we not saying that there is no such thing as morality?

I think that much of the distinctly moral life involves foregoing what looks like our self-interest superficially for what is really our self-interest. We have moral rules because there are a lot of circumstances in which immediate short term benefits to ourselves seem tantalizing but were we all routinely to go for them we would sabotage more profound goods for ourselves. Game theoretics and social contract theories demonstrate numerous ways in which mutually coordinated cooperation between agents who forego cheating benefit in the long run. We are social creatures, each of whose thriving is inescapably bound up overall with each other’s thriving.

I also think my interest in flourishing could justify making sacrifices to a lot of material goods (including even our own lives) for the sake of others. The core of the reason for this is that many of our exercises of power are only consummated when they have effects on other people. For example, my power of teaching requires completion in the student’s learning to successfully fulfill itself. And I can stay effective, i.e. powerful, as a teacher beyond the moment of teaching only for as long as my student’s knowledge and skills remain increased and lead to further power effects in the world. When I have such goodness-increasing effects in the world I am objectively powerful outside the confines of my own body. If dying in some heroic way were to contribute to creating some enduring powerful effects in the world greater than which would be possible by my continuing to live, then my objective power interest could be in dying since it would make me more effectively powerful than continuing to live would.

So our own interests can be quite bound up with others’ both because overall prosperity increases our own and because when we contribute to the effective powerful flourishing of others, we become powerful in them and through them. But we are also prone towards being very shortsighted creatures who see immediate possible benefits and may be tempted to take them. We sometimes find it difficult to habitually and automatically trust in, and adhere to, systems of cooperation when we see glaring opportunities to cheat the system.

In order to train ourselves to make the necessary trade offs of short term benefits that come at exploiting others, it has been helpful for societies to make certain rules of thumb for cooperative decision making feel like absolute, inviolable rules which are universally and equally binding upon all people independent of all situational considerations. I think this is why so many moralities developed in such a way that they present themselves as being about absolutes which are indifferent to our self-interest and in which it is anathema to allow particularities of circumstances to trump blind allegiance to inflexible moral rules. The inculcation of absolutism in moral thinking is effectively designed as a crude corrective to the brain’s habitual short-sightedness in contemplating its own interests.

Also since moral rules are most present to our minds and feel most relevant to us usually only in those cases where we are tempted to violate them, we develop strong mental and emotional associations between being moral and sacrificing things we desire. Even though most of the time we are moral automatically and for clear benefits to ourselves, our perception of it is skewed towards those times when it involves deferring to its oughts in ways that involve self-denial, and so we inaccurately think of it as primarily about self-denial in some essential, even definitional, way. But this does not mean that, in fact, morality is something that truly should go against, or be indifferent to, our own interests if properly understood.

Were the tendency to have moral rules not effectively in our self-interest in deep ways, it would have gone out the window before humans even invented windows. And insofar as a given moral rule (or set of them) has in some way become counter-productive or otherwise does more harm than good, then it is a moral tragedy if a group of people is still trapped fetishizing it and refuses to revise or replace it to account for new circumstances or new knowledge. Either a supposed moral rule can really be demonstrated to really serve our own enlightened self-interests in the present day, or we should drop it like a hot potato.

Insofar as moral rules are guides to doing things which are good for us but which cut against the normal habits or inclinations of our minds, they are valuable, and insofar as we have a strong power of will to adhere to such moral rules against temptation not to, we flourish in one of the key constitutive powers of a human being and of a good human life. This is the virtue of dutifulness. It is most fundamentally justified by the way that it contributes to an overall life of maximal flourishing.

Dutifulness of course also has some value in itself as a power in its own right. It is good to be powerfully capable of adhering to a duty since this is one way among others to exercise a human power and realize one’s humanity and that is intrinsically good for us as humans. But if one expresses one’s sense of dutifulness by adhering to the wrong duties, this exercise of power would be less than ideal because even though it would be a good exercise of power taken in itself it would unfortunately contribute to a net loss of overall power and therein result in a net loss of good for ourselves. So, dutifulness is excellent as a power in its own right but in order to be maximally good for us and maximally justified as rational in a given case, it must also maximally contribute to our maximal overall flourishing.In this context, we can quickly account for the other key Kantian moral goods. Autonomy is a central part of human flourishing and so Kant is right to teach us to value it. Moral consistency is a key part of building social trust and effectiveness in morality so Kant is correct to treat this as a highly valuable thing. His injunction that we never act in ways that are formally contradictory is valuable to me in that it helps us understand the intrinsic irrationality and immorality of willing against our own good.

Yet, there are some actions which serve this ultimate good and yet could be cast as having formal contradictions in them. For example, Kant is correct to argue that breaking promises involves a practical contradiction. But usually I think breaking promises is wrong not because of the practical contradiction involved in doing so (which really is there) but because it is in the long run detrimental to our flourishing. In cases where acting in a practical contradiction, such as breaking a promise, is demonstrably vital to the maximization of the overall flourishing of the greatest number of people, then such a practical contradiction has to be permitted lest we commit a more fundamentally devastating practical contradiction and violate the very conditions of our own power. When we commit a practical contradiction this is bad for us insofar as it involves us acting irrationally (at least in formal terms) and therefore not completely realizing one of our powers. But when there is a conflict between fully exercising our abilities to be formally rational and our abilities to have powers at all, we should opt to go with the more fundamental need, the one to be powerfully effective at all.

Your Thoughts?

Sympathetic expositions of Kant’s philosophy and much more on own moral philosophy in general can be read in the following posts:

Philosophical Ethics: Kant, The Good Will, And Rational Actions

Philosophical Ethics: “But Why MUST I?” Kant’s Ironic Formulation Of Liberty As Duty

Philosophical Ethics: A Possible Kantian Formula For Determining The Permissibility Of Self-Defense

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Enkidum

    Two things, both of which are fairly academic-philosophy-oriented. Which is something I’m out of practice at, since I left philosophy for science several years ago. So apologies if I’m missing something obvious, and there’s inevitably going to be a lot of my own interpretations interwoven in here.

    1) What you argue for sounds an awful lot like the virtue ethics of Hursthouse and others like her (which is, interestingly, directly rooted in Aristotle, with some hand-waving in the general direction of evolutionary biology). Basically, each organism has a species-specific set of activities that constitute flourishing, and that organism’s virtue is to maximize said flourishing. For plants it’s fairly easy to figure out what said flourishing is, for humans, given our plastic behaviours, its a lot more difficult. But the idea is the same in both cases.

    As humans, we have to determine what, in the long run, will make us better humans, and follow that. (And not “better” in the traditional moral sense, but better insofar as we flourish more.) They also emphasize, as does Aristotle, the role of examples over rules – find a virtuous person, and do what they would do, rather than trying to come up with an ironclad system of rules. Given the wide range of circumstances humans live in, inflexible rules are likely to reduce flourishing in certain cases. (Although they are perfectly happy to acknowledge that there are some heuristics which are likely to be valid in almost any circumstances, but even then, they stress that examples are likely to be more relevant than rules.) Any thoughts on what similarities/differences you see there?

    2) I’ve never seen anyone bring this up about Kant (though obviously I’ve barely even scratched the surface of Kant scholarship), but it always struck me that he was actually groping towards something not unlike game theory. The passages in the Critique of Practical Reason where he finally breaks down and gives examples of how to determine whether or not a given action is moral are the best illustration of this. The idea is that you consider the grounds of your action, and then imagine a world in which everyone does this. Of course he doesn’t give us much to help us understand what the grounds of an action are, but he seems to assume that in all cases, there is a determinable reason why we act a given way. I believe these passages are hugely controversial among Kant scholars.

    Anyways, probably the easiest example to think of is his prohibition of lying: if you imagine a world where everyone is willing to lie under any circumstances, lying is no longer effective. Thus, from his perspective, lying is inherently self-contradictory. Maybe a less dogmatic way of putting it would be that lying is only a coherent strategy against a backdrop of truth.

    This way of testing morality sounds an awful lot like a less precise version of computational game theory to me. In that field, as you know, one mathematically describes a given strategy for interacting with others, and then sees what happens to individuals who follow that strategy in a given population. A limiting case is always a population which is completely filled with individuals using that strategy. And it would be fairly easy to establish that Kant’s intuition is right: a world filled with liars would be one where the payoffs, both to individuals and across the society as a whole, are lower than one where everyone tells the truth. What Kant neglects, however, is that a population where everyone expects others to tell the truth is a population ripe for invasion by liars. Again, it is relatively easy to demonstrate this mathematically. And I think that if one wants to talk about what is/isn’t moral, one needs to go much further down this game theoretic route than Kant is comfortable with.

    I think that’s consistent with your post as well, right? I just think it’s interesting that one can find the seeds for such a radically non-deontic form of morality in Kant himself.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, to all of that I would have to say, “pretty much”.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I would add Hursthouse was specifically influential upon me in the way she characterized how two different people could embody the same virtue through making the opposite choices given the particularities of the ways their desires, goals, and other goods were aligned for them. Someday I should talk about her argument and the way I adapt it specifically.

    • Enkidum

      Excellent! I like being right!

      (Incidentally, one of the reasons I went into that big-ass novel was that I misread your characterization of yourself as an “Aristotelian Nietzschian” – I somehow added a “non” to Aristotle. Given that you identify yourself with that tradition, a lot of what I said about virtue ethics is kind of obvious.)

  • Robert B.

    It seems that, according to your definitions, not only do individual people have powers, groups of people have powers also. Doesn’t this imply that groups of people have ethical duties just as individuals do? If so, then it seems that some or all of the individual people in the group must make decisions and take actions in the name of this group duty.

    So, assuming my reasoning to this point is sound, how does my duty as a person to maximize my personal power, reconcile with my duty as part of a group to maximize the group’s power? Does one or the other take priority in the case of a conflict? Does it matter if I chose to join this group (a workplace, a sports team, a group of roommates) or not (the USA, my family)? Does it matter whether, once joined, it is practical for me to leave the group?

  • Ariel

    (1) our highest ethical goods are to maximally flourish in our power and in our will to power.
    (2) The more I can flourish in the powers that make me be, the more I bring myself into being, and it is axiomatic that this is good for me.

    Your whole approach, and these two fragments in particular, generate a tension. In (1) it looks like the group (society, mankind in general, whatever) is the subject on which goodness/badness depend: one is tempted to interpret (1) as “mankind’s flourishing is the highest ethical good”. In the second case the emphasis is on an individual, not on a group. As I understand, in your essay you are trying to reconcile both perspectives – with a very moderate success, I’m afraid.

    But the reason I put concern for “me” as the highest priority is that, at the end of the day, a supposed moral duty which would obliterate the species would be irrational to obey.

    If you adopt the individualistic perspective of (2), I can see no justification for that. Why would it be irrational? Why should I fight the pollution if the negative consequences will be really felt only after I die, so that they will not restrict in any way my own, personal “flourish in power”? (On the other hand, anti-pollution regulations introduced now and here could restrict my flourishing, so what the heck?) You could try to answer by indicating that by fighting the pollution I take part in an enterprise which “creates some enduring powerful effects” in the world, and in this way I increase my power. However, the rejoinder would be that by taking part in a destruction of future generations I also create some enduring powerful effects – only of a different sort. It seems to me that you need some extra moral standards to differentiate between these different sorts of effects. Mere “power to create” won’t do.

    I guess you could try also a different strategy: you could say that the very existence (and social acceptance) of moral rules lies in my own, personal interest. In other words: it’s in my own interest to support and obey rules like (very roughly) “don’t harm the others”, and obeying such rules means in particular fighting against pollution. But then: (a) how to explain the wide scope of such rules, which take also future generations into account – why exactly promoting their interests is beneficial for me?; and (b) even granted that the existence of a given rule is beneficial for me, why should I obey it even when the risk of being caught is minimal? Like: I have an opportunity to murder my rich uncle in such a way that everyone else will think that it was an accident. No outrage to public morality, no punishment, the social existence of the rule “don’t harm the others” not threatened in any way by my deed. By your standards, in such a situation killing my uncle still looks like a good thing to do.

    In effect: it seems to me that even if your approach could be successful on a group level (I’m not sure of it at all!) as a justification of the existence of morality, it fails on an individual level. It still can be used to justify plainly immoral acts. Unless you state clearly that the standards you are writing about are to be applied by groups, not by individuals.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Well, since I guess this post was inspired by my comment, I should reply. And what I reply with is that you didn’t really, as far as I can see, escape the thrust of my argument, and the example of promises and the Kantian demonstrates that: you and the Kantian both agree that breaking promises is morally wrong, but for fundamentally different reasons.

    Now, I’m only a novice when it comes to Kantian ethics, but in the promise example you argue that it’s because in most cases it limits your flourishing. But the Kantians, if I am not mistaken, will argue that your flourishing consists in large part in being RATIONAL, and acting in an irrational manner (and you concede) is working against how you should act as fundamentally a rational being. For them, being human is tightly tied to rationality, and so flourishing and self-interest has to be judged by that — by your own arguments — and so you’re wrong and they’re right. They disagree on what are the fundamental properties of humanity that you rely on to make your case.

    Now, obviously I’m more familiar with the Stoics, and they actually provide an excellent counter example to your sacrifice example. You argue that it’s reasonable and moral to sacrifice material gain for social benefits. But for the Stoics, that’s sacrificing one indifferent for another, and there’s no real moral question there at all. Why? Because like the Kantians they argue that the ultimate end for humans as humans is being rational, and so the virtues are derived from what is intrinsically rationally good (yes, a hard determination to make, but that’s not relevant here) and neither material nor social benefits are, in fact, intrinsically rationally good. But up to this point they agreed with everything you said, and yet they strongly disagree on this point.

    Egoists can be mustered against your “teacher/student” example. Egoists can agree with pretty much everything you said — especially about self-interest and even the social benefits of self-interest — but may reasonably argue that they don’t need to care as a teacher if their students learn because, for them, “teacher” is not part of their IDENTITY; it is nothing more than a job they have that provides them with things they want or are in their self-interest. Thus, they counter, you should only care about the student actually learning as far as you need to to get what you want, in their case to keep their job.

    It seems to me that you run into the same problem that Sam Harris does, although you make a much better attempt at it. You both try to argue that some general principle — well-being for him, flourishing for you — covers pretty much all proposed moral codes out there, or at least all the ones that are worth considering. But to do that, you have to make a very broad statement, which then all of them to say that, yes, they can pretty much agree with that broad statement. But then the instant you try to tease out specific cases, we discover that the differences were not resolved but were merely papered over; the exact same disagreements arise because they agreed with your broad statement using a completely different meaning of “flourishing” or “well-being”. And that becomes very difficult to resolve.

    This is one reason why I think the Stoics are an excellent example to use in these debates. For the most part, they advocate a rational morality and accept in some sense that well-being or flourishing is a credible goal or ground. However, their idea of flourishing is completely different from what most people consider to be flourishing. But they aren’t simply dictating this from holy books or anything, but are arguing that they’ve rationally arrived at it. But if you can accommodate the Stoics and say that they have a different but still reasonable moral code, then it’s hard to see what other moral opinions you could possibly rule out.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    Hi Robert, Ariel, and Stoic, I hope to address your comments in coming posts, they’re all very helpful, thanks!