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