Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 6
In our last post, we looked at the problem of altruistic morality, which frequently conflicts with our inborn, instinctive inclinations. This conflict causes us distress as we are subject to the uncompromising demands of two incompatible masters – animal instinct and herd morality. As the only animal that is psychologically divided against its own self, this conflict makes us sick, confused and unhappy.
Let us see how these conflicting dynamics play out in a simple example. There is a chocolate cake. It looks delicious. You are hungry.
Raw instinct tells you to eat the cake yourself, maybe sharing some with your family – this kind of behaviour has been highly optimal as regards reproductive success in your evolutionary lineage over vast periods of time.
However, social conditioning (herd morality) tells you that you should share with others who are not your family and you know there are consequences if you don’t. You might experience feelings of guilt, which is also socially conditioned. You will lose social standing if you are found out. You may be slandered and ostracised. You may experience that most unbearable of all feelings - shame (socially conditioned too). Others might refuse to share their cake with you in future and you may even risk being cast out of the group.
It may also be the case that the social conditioning has been so effective that you actually enjoy sharing with non-family. Why do you enjoy it? Well, for Nietzsche, you enjoy it because it bolsters your reputation as a selfless herd member, it helps cement useful alliances and, because of your powerful social programming, it gives you a sense of your own personal virtue. The feelings you enjoy are those of security within the group, social standing and pride. You feel that others who enjoyed your cake are indebted to you, so that you have good will ‘in the bank’ that you can call upon. You may also enjoy exercising the ability to bestow good things on others – this is to experience power.
It follows from 2 and 3 that all these feelings around ‘altruistically’ sharing your chocolate cake are actually grounded in your own instinctive needs: the loss or gain of security, status, pride, access to resources and power. All of which, for Nietzsche, are reducible to power alone (security is the conservation of power, status is increase of power, pride is a feeling of having power and resources are forms of material power).
How, then, can actions motivated by our own needs, ultimately by our own desire for power, be described as altruistic? They are, at bottom, as selfish as just gobbling the cake ourselves, only a bit more crafty and duplicitous.
So Nietzsche’s beef with altruistic morality is, basically, that it is bullshit. The word he would use is ‘mendacious’ which essentially means dishonest, but ‘mendacity’ captures something more than simple dishonesty – something a bit more like, well, ‘bullshit’.
For Nietzsche, altruistic morality, the morality of the herd, pretends to absolute selflessness but is, in fact, a sham. Hidden beneath the show of kindness, concern and putting others first are the inexorable demands of the instincts that dominate our behaviour, whether we like it or not, whether we acquiesce or whether we try to oppose them. Actions that are apparently moral are undertaken, in truth, for selfish purposes and our loftiest avowed moral values are, for the most part, just egoistic posturing. All human behaviour is a power game played on many levels.
Even one who lays down their life for the community, the ultimate sacrifice, does it, as far as Nietzsche is concerned, for egoistic reasons. They lose life (a mixed blessing at best, as we currently live it) and gain something rare and precious, the status of a hero. To be a hero is to be lauded within the community as the highest moral exemplar. ‘I just did what anybody would have done’ our heroes say – because to make any claim to being superior to the average specimen drawn from the herd is to immediately forfeit your hero status.
These complex dynamics that play out in every moral choice, even the sharing of a chocolate cake, are made even more inscrutable by the fact that we do not really know our own minds. Much of our thinking, our reasoning and our willing goes on beneath the level of our conscious awareness or at least partially so. Inevitably, we act selfishly and we construct a socially-acceptable veneer of moral propriety to fool ourselves as much as to dupe other people. As we have said before, this is how we live with ourselves: through self-deception, through lying to ourselves, through fabricated rationalisations.
Be under no illusion, innate instinct - so ancient, so fundamental - trumps all. Even when you genuinely feel you are not looking out for number one, when you believe yourself to be doing something truly noble, compassionate and just, instinct surreptitiously hijacks proceedings. Instinct generally only furnishes you with feel-good chemicals when you perform behaviours that have been conducive to the reproductive success of your evolutionary lineage in the past. Like hopeless junkies, we are subject to the whims of the dealer in our brain to win some relief from the ever-waiting happiness withdrawal syndrome. Happiness, dear reader, is a monkey on your back.
What should we conclude from this? Perhaps that we should have the honesty and the integrity to just follow the demands of our natural instincts without the pretence of moral motives, right? Wrong. Instinct is both blind and stupid. Instinct would have you eat the whole chocolate cake yourself and then probably throw up. Instinct developed in environmental conditions very different to the ones we find ourselves in today. Instinct is not fit for purpose for the modern human, but instinct cannot be denied. The attempt at its repression has been the source of endemic human anxiety, misery and self-contempt for millennia.
The human of tomorrow will not be wild beast but neither will it be herd animal.
The human of tomorrow will be something else; something as yet unseen on this planet.
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