Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 5
Bad news. You are like some kind of degenerate junkie. You will do pretty much anything to get the next hit of the drug you crave, thereby staving off the withdrawal symptoms just a little longer. You might be willing to lie, cheat, debase yourself, betray your principles, turn a blind eye to suffering and even trample others underfoot. That drug is, of course, happiness. Or, more precisely, it’s the cocktail of feel-good chemicals that your brain rewards you with when you engage in behaviours and experiences that have been conducive to reproductive success for your ancestors over vast stretches of time in the past (note that qualification, ‘in the past’).
But surely, you will object, you wouldn’t do anything unscrupulous ‘for happiness’. What an absurd idea! You might argue that, for you, happiness itself is closely aligned with values opposed to such deplorable behaviours, to wit: truth, honesty, integrity, honour, fairness and compassion.
But take a common proxy for happiness; money. Money isn’t the same thing as happiness but it will buy you a lot of the things that trigger the reward centre in the brain: security, comfort, love (contrary to the claims of certain pop songs), social status and power. They say everyone has their price. How much lying, cheating or worse would you be prepared to participate in for an adequately large sum of money?
Or perhaps your hand might be stayed by the fear of unhappiness, because antisocial activities come with the potential for dire consequences. There is a calculation of risk versus reward here. The more pertinent question, then, would be ‘what crimes would you be prepared to perpetrate if you knew you could get away with them?’
But let’s set aside such outrageous speculations and examine instead a fairly innocuous-seeming scenario, one that does not attract huge social opprobrium: you buy heavily discounted clothing that is almost certainly produced by sweatshop labour. Along with the buzz of making a purchase, the money you have saved gives you an extra little shot of feel-good chemicals. No harm? Don’t fool yourself. Those few extra dollars in your wallet come straight out of the wages of some exploited worker in the developing world where employment protections are minimal or non-existent. You can be sure the middle-men don’t reduce their cut to give you a discount. The cheaper the stuff you want is, the happier you are and the more miserable the poor sap is who actually produces the goods.
The explicit knowledge of this arrangement can cause some unhappiness, which might prevent you from making purchases, so the unsavoury reality of the arrangement is kept out of view as much as is possible and, in most cases, you collude in the deception by keeping it from yourself; choosing not to think about it too much. And that’s how we do it, how we live with ourselves: through self-deception, through lying to ourselves, through so-called rationalisations.
However, notwithstanding your blasé attitude to the injustices that result from your insatiable need for happiness, we do not entirely deny that cleaving to values such as truth, honesty, integrity, honour, fairness and compassion will make you feel good about yourself. But how can thisbe explained? If, in the absence of any risk of repercussions, grabbing what we can and looking out for number one is soeffective in securing the happiness fix, how is it that these more selfless values can make us feel good too? Surely, they are also triggering the reward centre in the brain? Is this evidence that they are conducive to reproductive success too?
You might think of it as two different dynamics at play here. The first is the ancient and instinctive reward centre that fires when you engage in behaviours and experiences that have been conducive to reproductive success over millions of years. The second is the cultivated social conditioning upon which civilisation is premised; conditioning to which we are all subject. Roughly speaking, the first is nature, the second is nurture.
As we will explore elsewhere, the advent of large societies necessitated the taming of the wild human being into a domesticated animal. Its natural, selfish and even violent inclinations had to be curtailed in order for the societal machine to function in a smooth and orderly way. Formerly, this human beast had only felt any loyalty, any impulse to share resources, any capacity for empathy with its own genetic kin (which, take note, is a predisposition obviously conducive to reproductive success). Now those feelings of fellowship had to be forcibly expanded to encompass the whole community – something almost anti-natural. In the newly forged, ‘civilised’ community, the individual was to be of value only to the extent that they were of service to the collective. This was even taken to the extent that individuals were compelled to engage in behaviours that were actually contrary to the reproductive success of their own lineage – at the extreme, the laying down of one’s life for the community.
This is why Nietzsche calls the modern human ‘the sick animal’. On the most primal level, it is an amoral beast that has been socially straightjacketed and forced to wear a moral mask. How was this achieved? Through pain, shame and intense reprogramming. We will learn more about this centuries-long, mass-brainwashing process later. Nietzsche described the historical socialisation of the human being as a process of ‘being taught to dance by blows and starvation’. This unnatural selflessness that civilisation beat so relentlessly into the population is the foundation of our altruistic morality right up to the present day. Nietzsche called it ‘herd morality’.
It may be possible to get an atavistic glimpse of this reality in everyday life. Have you ever noticed how people (perhaps you too) often act slightly differently within their family groups than they do in wider society. They can be more petty, more argumentative, more hypersensitive to criticism, more ill-mannered with their loved ones and yet are immediately able to paste on a smile and an affable demeanour for any old stranger. In this can be seen the effects of the moral mask. Society demands that we are courteous, friendly, benevolent and thoughtful towards others - or face social consequences. Family, being close to us, linked to our interests without the artifice of altruistic morality, often see a more authentic version of the individual, warts and all. The public, on the other hand, tend to see the more socially acceptable persona; they see only the mask.
But masks slip sometimes. Like when people find themselves in intense emotional states, when people drink too much alcohol and become disinhibited or when society’s structures break down.
The problem is that altruistic morality, inculcated in each of us from birth, grounded in age-old social custom and practice and backed by law, frequently runs contrary to our inborn, instinctive inclinations. This conflict is a source of anxiety and pain. We are confused, subject to the uncompromising demands of two incompatible masters – animal instinct and herd morality. This is why for Nietzsche, we are ‘the bungled animal’, ‘the absurd animal’ and the one that has ‘most dangerously strayed from its instincts.’ As the only animal that is psychologically divided against its own self, it is little wonder that mental health problems are an all-too-common scourge of modern humanity.
Next time we will begin to uncover the solution to this dilemma of the human being divided against itself. Our project is one of psychological integration.
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