Power Does Not Create Moral Value

Power Does Not Create Moral Value February 8, 2019

This is a guest post from a philosophically inclined friend of mine from Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub, Rhys Chellow. Enjoy.

Nietzsche is the religious apologist’s atheist; they agree on so much. Listening to debates about morality, you can hear the apologist refuse any derivation of morals and values from anything, except a God ― dismissing them is arbitrary or relativist. And from Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman who killed God, it’s clear that Nietzsche (or, at least, the drunken character) holds a very similar belief. Except Nietzsche doesn’t believe in God.

It is Nietzsche’s attempt at describing his own source of value, and at the same time denigrating Christian sources of value, that became the topic of a brief Facebook debate. The paragraph I was invited to debate was this:

Having greater strength, capability, intellect, prowess in creativity and industriousness, toughness and resilience (and thereby wealth and power) are all good things to possess but the Christian message and left wing thinking (its granddaughter) have inverted these as values and brought down the noble in their attempt to raise up the weak. In trying to push towards “justice” we have slain the living to raise the dead. This is an inversion of the natural good of nature.

I want to explain the problems and the paradox with this philosophy.

For the purposes of this post, we can ignore claims of the source of value to ‘raise up the weak’ finding its origins in ‘the Christian message and left wing thinking’, as the source of such a value isn’t important. Instead, we can examine the idea that Nietzschean values (“greater strength, capability, intellect, prowess in creativity and industriousness, toughness and resilience”) and their fruits (“wealth and power”) somehow impose themselves as a “natural good” or moral value.

And it is worth preluding my criticisms of Nietzsche’s idea by pointing out a paradox: any way in which the “living” are “slain” “to raise the dead” is managed; something like a government taxing (slaying) the wealthy (living) to create welfare and safety nets to protect the less fortunate (raise the dead). A government can do that because it has wealth and power. The claim that helping the less well off at the expense of the more fortunate being a violation of Nietzsche’s thesis about power being good appears to have not been fully thought through, as it is a direct result of power.

We can start by playing Devil’s Advocate and simply accept the implication that power legitimately instantiates the values of the wielder of that power; “might makes right”. If we accept that might makes right, are the individualist traits of prowess, toughness and strength really the best producers of might; is one individual’s ability to dominate another really the shining bright line between good and bad?

Power in a society simply doesn’t work this way. Collectives can overpower an individual, no matter how powerful that individual is. Even within the Nietzschean ‘might makes right’, it is a persuasive counter-proposal that value is created by the content of overarching stories that can compel a large number of people into a collective or community. Real power rests not in individuals, but in stories that can compel many individuals to work together.

Countries and nation states are nothing more than a story believed by many; there are no borders and nothing chemically ‘British’ about the ground I walk on. (This is perhaps no more obvious than when the soil under an embassy is considered to belong to another country.) And yet, the immense power a country wields, as a collective held together by a story, makes insignificant the power of even the strongest powerlifter or most industrious nurse (or even a powerlifting nurse). To take on a country, you need a story, like the Arab Spring ― which contained its own allusions to values.

It’s not necessarily a case of any story being good enough. The fewer elements of a story that are materially false, the better. Christian stories of global floods and talking snakes make the story a little harder for skeptical people to rally behind. Humanism, by contrast, makes no material claims about history or science; it is built entirely on claims of value.

If you want to enjoy the benefits of the productivity of one of these stories, then you have to share in their values. If you want to be a free citizen of the UK, you have to obey their laws; if you want to keep going to the gym, you have to follow their rules. To flout them, you need the power of an entire story (think: Tommy Robinson).

And in this is one of the big weaknesses of deriving values from loyalty to a story. Yuval Noah Harari [author of Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus] points out that most people subscribe to many stories: they are citizens of a country and a town; a member of a family and a sports team. And the loyalty to these stories happens by degrees and balance, where disagreements can be managed. But, when a story demands unwavering loyalty, the balance shifts. When any other community or value can be betrayed in its entirety to make even the smallest protection or progression in some uber-story, then we’ve walked into dogma and extremism (think: Brexit).

We can go back a step and re-examine the Nietzschean values and their fruits. Without disagreeing with Nietzsche, one could ask the following: what good wealth and power are if they are not used in effective charity? Is trust-fund wealth a good in its own end, or is wealth produced by creating a company that delivers a service better? Can power be wielded badly?

If we insist on playing Devil’s Advocate, and accepting the Nietzschean ‘might makes right’, we end up with problems: all individual might is swamped by the might of a community supported by a story; Nietzsche might complain that the community is smothering his power, but under Nietzsche’s own thesis that is something the community can do solely by value of its power; communities supported by a story can lead to things that are patently not right (and there’s no need to list the examples); and some stories ask us for unthinking loyalty. Stories that can appeal to the better demons of our nature can approximate to valuable and good things, but that’s a very selective sample of the stories available to us, or even the ones that have prevailed. There is a way to solve the problem, though.

Short of a good defence of the claim that value should be produced by power, either individual or collective, we can doubt it; absent a good defence, we should default to the position that there is no relationship between power and moral value.

[Rhys Chellow rather rarely, was always an atheist; he says this with some confidence, as he can recall my surprise aged 11 that others took religious stories seriously (where he had always grouped them with Brer Rabbit and other fiction that his dad read him as a child). His main philosophical take away was that facts only matter after some deeper principles can be agreed. It was the only thing that ever made sense; without a solid and principled foundation, facts are free to blow in the wind.]


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