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Arguing against the amoralist


To: Diane F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Arguing against the amoralist
Date: 16 April 2008 14:13

Dear Diane,

Thank you for your email of 9 April, with your third essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

You have correctly identified the main point of the question, 'Why be moral?' which is to discover an argument which is capable of appealing to an amoralist, or someone who starts off in the amoral position.

In other words, we need to find some basis on which to appeal to the amoralist, who we may presume to be motivated by pure self-interest, someone who has no interest in other human beings, no desire to be liked or fear of being disliked.

Nietzsche's ubermensch is not an amoralist in this sense. That's the first and most important point I want to make. Nietzsche does, however, raise some of the most important questions in relation to our intuitive sense of 'right' and 'wrong'.

For Nietzsche, what is 'beyond' the 'good' and 'evil' of herd morality is 'good' and 'bad', as assessed by standards which are closer to the aesthetic. The ubermenschen judge one another according to their perception that they are 'equals' and therefore as such, and only as such, deserving of respect. Their code of conduct may be described as 'aristocratic' ethics. Nietzsche rejected, absolutely, the idea that 'everyone is basically equal'. He would argue that equality is not an essential defining characteristic of codes of conduct.

By contrast, an amoralist, pure and simple, has no place in any society, not even a 'society' of amoralists.

The question, however, is whether this definition really makes sense. We of course have examples of 'amoralists', persons who are diagnosed as 'psychopaths'. And no-one would even think of attempting to persuade a psychopath to stop being a psychopath.

However, there does seem to be some point in looking for an argument which would persuade the 'potential amoralist in me' not to give up morality.

This is an entirely separate question from the question which you go on to consider, how we decide what is morally right or wrong once we have accepted the need to be moral (e.g. whether by a 'categorical imperative' or 'social contract' or 'greatest happiness principle').

The story about Bill Clegg illustrates, in a humorous way, how difficult it is to argue with a convinced amoralist (or someone who thinks they are an amoralist!). But the real question is how coherent is that idea, i.e., the idea that we have a human being, a person, who has 'no interest in other human beings' etc. etc.

It won't do to merely repeat all the benefits of living in society. If it is cold, the amoralist will huddle up with other human beings if that is the only way to keep warm, and even pretend not to be an amoralist if that is a necessary requirement for huddling up.

Plato and Aristotle tackled this question. Plato famously considers (in Republic) the possibility that one might find a ring of invisibility (the Ring of Gyges) which allows you to pretend to be a fine upstanding member of the moral community (and hence gain all the material benefits from such membership) while secretly committing immoral acts to one's heart's content.

That's how hard the problem is. It's no good saying that if you're immoral you will be punished. With a ring of invisibility you wouldn't. It's no good saying that you would have no friends. The 'fine upstanding member' has loads of friends.

Then what is the amoralist missing? Plato and Aristotle would say (but they would, wouldn't they?) that these people whom you call your friends aren't really your friends even if they think they are. They are just people that you use to gain this or that end.

So now the question arises, what the 'ends' of the amoralist might be. Think of all the things that human beings strive to achieve, and remove all those which depend on the genuine admiration and respect of others (rather than a 'respect' that they have merely been tricked into). You can be 'loved' but you can't be loved. But then, who needs genuine respect or love, why aren't the substitutes just as good?

My take on this (see further 'In pursuit of the amoralist' is that an amoralist not only gives up values and morals, but also gives up the world. There is no such thing as a 'world' or 'truth'. In a sense, as an amoralist, you do not even 'exist'. That's an argument, of sorts, albeit an ad hominem argument which merely succeeds in raising the stakes for someone who wishes to take a sceptical line about morality.

All the best,