It’s widely accepted that of all the nations of ancient Arcadia, the Silvite civilisation was by far the most advanced. This was in no small measure down to their underlying philosophy that everything emerges out of nothing, a principle that would later be, to some degree, vindicated by quantum mechanics, and a principle that I shall draw upon today. Concordantly then, I shall begin with that great master of nothing, Friedrich Nietzsche.
I often find myself much in sympathy with Nietzsche. I am, like him, a great tearer down of establishment wisdom, with the vague hope that out of all that wonton destruction something better might one day emerge. Nietzsche certainly made no bones about his attempts to blow apart all preconceived convictions. He recklessly thrust mankind (or, at least, a hypothetical mankind) right beyond the edge of certainty, beyond any notion of existential stability, and indeed beyond good and evil. He blithely pooh-poohed the endeavours of philosophers to find some rational and objective basis for morality as merely selfish attempts to vindicate their own personal moralities. For Nietzsche there can be no absolute morality beyond the neuroses and drives of the individual, and that individual may reach his apotheosis as he strives to overcome collective society, a law unto himself. But where does this leave us? Stateless at the very least, astray in a bleak world where the cruel survive and the weak perish. To be fair, Nietzsche wasn’t really in the camp of the amoral anarchist – it’d be more accurate to say that he was never in any camp at all. Nonetheless, these consequences flow naturally from his thoughts, and fellow Shiva though I may be, I have to admit that there is need for something. Ultimately, the doctrine of nothing leads us down too dark a road. Nietzsche took his last journey long ago, entombed aboard the ferry of insanity – let his übermensch sleep and die in autumn umber.
It is of course quite right to say that the primary role of the state is to limit freedom. At the very least, it must limit those particular freedoms to limit the freedoms of others, if freedom is ever really anything to shout about at all. Do what thou wilt cannot be the whole of law. But the question of how far this limiting of freedom must go is not a trivial one, and this brings us on the John Stuart Mill and his harm principle. I’m afraid I’m going to use the example taught to me by my teachers of Victorian literature, so if you find it at all distasteful feel free to write to them – the example is that of a 19th century brothel. In basics, Mill’s harm principle states that the only things that are immoral are the things which cause harm to other people. A pretty nice idea, in principle. As such, a man visiting a prostitute is not in itself an immoral act, since it doesn’t necessarily involve any harm. However, we have to remember that 19th century brothels were hotbeds of syphilis. So, if a man visits a prostitute, contracts syphilis and then goes on to spread it to another woman, then he has done harm and it's at this point that his actions become immoral. There is, of course, a problem with this logic. It’s all very well to say: “Well, as long as you’re diligent and make sure you don’t contract syphilis, and if you do happen to get it make sure you don’t infect anyone else, then visiting brothels is fine,” but we have to recognise the fact that the society in which this attitude is general will invariably have a higher rate of syphilis than one that maintains the prostitution taboo.
We have to ask ourselves this simple question: are we individualists or are we collectivists? If we’re individualists then we’re most concerned with personal responsibility; that is to say, we’re interested in ascribing blame and deciding who's at fault. If we’re collectivists then we’re not so concerned with who’s to blame as much as we are with the general prevention of the transgression in the first place. Though my heart invariably pulses to an individualist beat, my brain tells me that collectivism is the correct policy to adopt. There can be no doubt that, ultimately, a collectivist society will be a happier society. We can even take the Darwinian attitude and postulate that a collectivist society will outperform an individualist one, since collectivism necessitates the surrender of personal freedoms for the benefit of the society as a whole. The morality that suffuses this society will be constructed (and sanctioned by the state, no doubt), but that’s fine, as long we recognise that it is constructed.
I remember in the months running up to the legalisation of gay marriage in Britain that I came across a few debates on the issue as I lurked about on my Facebook feed. There was one in particular which is perhaps worthy of note. A detractor pointed out that if you were going to legalise gay marriage there would be nothing stopping you from legalising polygamy as well. Her opponent insisted that this wasn’t the case, that gay marriage and polygamy were completely different issues, and went on to innumerate a number of points that I shan’t trouble you with here (not least because I can’t actually remember them). What struck me, however, was how she’d deluded herself. Of course, you and I and anyone with good critical sensibilities can see as plain as day that the arguments leading towards the legalisation of gay marriage and of polygamy are identical. But this person sincerely and passionately believed that one was completely fine and should be legalised, whilst the other was immoral and should remain illegal. The reason is plain enough: she was part of a society, or rather a section of society, that had thrown off its taboo against homosexuality but not (yet) thrown off its taboo against polygamy. She was nonetheless convinced that one was absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. In this instance Nietzsche is vindicated – with her arguments and assertions she was only trying to defend her own moralistic neuroses, and therefore ended up in a logical cul-de-sac. Had she only realised that her morality was constructed from the outset she might have arrived at a more sensible conclusion.
But for all this rambling discourse about constructed moralities, I cannot help myself from digging deeper. There must be something beneath this beneath. Where is the absolute morality? It’s quite true that each society has its own neuroses and taboos that modulate moralistic behaviours, but it’s also true that Thou shalt not kill is uniformly ingrained into the psyches of all those societies, as well as some other absolute edicts. Surely this goes beyond societal construction. But where does it spring from? Need we look any further than human empathy?
Empathy is not something invented by society; it is carved into our minds as indelibly as hunger or sexual desire or fear of death. It is a fundamental element of human existence and can be boiled down to this: for me to joy in your joys and sorrow in your sorrows. Nietzsche might derisively disregard this as ‘pity’ (which he would insist is nothing more than cruelty in a hat), but in doing so he would fail to see the happiness inherent in it. Personally, I would rather call it love. There are in the world countless acts of random kindness. Once upon a time, whilst I trod the London streets (as is my wont) I happened to come across this note left lying upon a front garden wall. Needless to say I didn’t take it, but walked away smiling at the sentiment. The fact remains that, as human beings, caring about others and making them happy makes us happy, and that these happinesses resonate with each other. And even in our constructed moralities, that we use to create better societies, the underlying principle has to be one of care for others. No matter how academic and logical we get, in the end of the day all morality must derive from this single basic human instinct: empathy.
And so it’s you who lies at the heart of all this. You, my opposite, my reflection, my other and myself. You, the level by which I can judge what is good and what is evil in this world. You, the reason for my being. You are my happiness.
Image captured from Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000)