Editorial Note:

Dr. Pedro Blas Gonzalez is a writer and philosopher who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. He has written five books: Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega y Gasset's Philosophy of Subjectivity; Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy; Ortega's 'The Revolt of the Masses' and the Triumph of the New Man; Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay, and Dreaming in the Cathedral. Personal blog: pedroblasgonzalez.blogspot.com.


Schopenhauer on Conscience
as the Ground of Ethics

by Pedro Blas Gonzalez


We shall leave this world as foolish and
as wicked as we found it on our arrival.

Voltaire


Our Currently Exhausted Notion of Ethics

Arthur Schopenhauer never minced words. As a self-respecting philosopher, his allegiance was to truth. This is a staple characteristic that is in keeping with genuine free-thinkers from all ages. This quality, however, is one that we are no longer prepared to embrace in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The poignant and heuristic truths that we discover in Schopenhauer's work seem to make us nervous. Schopenhauer's grasp of truth embarrasses us, for much like a child reacting to the presence of a discerning adult, even the idea of truth is already too much for us to bear today. There are several reasons for this, I believe. But suffice it say to say that ours is not a metaphysical-existential age. On the contrary, we live in a materialist/positivist age that has performed the hideous crime of making all aspects of human existence revolve around social-political organization. The latter consideration alone is a strong sign that ours is a rather insipid and unhealthy age.

My intention in these pages is not so much an elucidation of Schopenhauer's ethical thought, but rather to juxtapose some aspects of this with the moral state of the world today. If Ortega y Gasset is correct in The Revolt of the Masses, where he asserts -- in 1930 no less -- that the world is demoralized, then it also seems useful to ask how this condition has come to pass, and where will it lead us?

Let us begin by considering our present-day mania for "ethics." We talk incessantly about ethics as if we were the first historical period to discover or think of such a thing. Of course, we must decipher the meaning and purpose of the aforementioned with caution, for any sentient observer of this modish phenomenon will also recognize that ours is an age that has embraced the efficacy of appearances over any regard for truth. Our fascination with ethics has been amplified to mean almost anything. This is also a significant consideration to point out. Today we cherish talk of professional, business, and the darling of the status quo, environmental ethics. Taken in itself, this is hardly a problem. The problem begins when ethics is not an end in itself, but rather a means to further social-political aims. I will suggest that our outwardly professed sensitivity for ethics and ethical treatment of popular causes in effect affords us a pseudo-religious engagement with reality, in what is otherwise an anti-religious, morally sterile, secular age.

In addition, today's cautious observers do not have much difficulty in understanding how our assault on cosmic reality, by way of an all-encompassing ethics of everything, is solely meant for public consumption. Ours is an age sickened by popular and populist appeal. One fine feature of Descartes' metaphysical thought is his elucidation on the nature of self-evident truths. Nowhere do we see the blatant violation of this rule than in our current make-work conception of ethics. In effect, we have successfully transformed ethics into a cottage industry.

While the predominant notions of ethics today are totally devoid of any religious content, moral higher ground or the capacity for transcendence, ethics, as so many today like to think of this, essentially remains a tool at the disposition of those who are socially-politically "committed." One clear-cut evidence for this is that nothing can be deemed ethical today that is difficult to embrace or live by. Our predominant rendition of "ethics" is conveniently and curiously geared to the exigencies of our hedonistic age. For this and other reasons, nothing ethical, according to our gurus today, can showcase an intrinsic aspect of resistance to our whims and desires.

Thus it is no surprise to discover that the kind of ethics we embrace is in keeping with our positivistic worldview. I suppose that a better way of saying this is that we have the ethical problems that we deserve. Carpenters get splinters, athletes sore muscles, swimmers get wet, and our age has the ethical problems that go hand in hand with a positivistic conception of man in the cosmos. It is perhaps also safe to say that our contradictory notions of ethics create their own set of problems. Ironically, it seems that the causes of our problems today are indistinguishable from our idea of ethics.

If I am correct in my assessment, I will also add that our time finds itself in an unprecedented and devastating dilemma which has delivered us to a morally bankrupt cul-de-sac. It appears that ethics cannot exist outside the sincere practice of a genuinely felt sense of virtue, and that ethics is only possible as the result of a healthy conscience. How pretentious then, it seems, to promote code of ethics that have no grounding in the actual make-up and inherent possibilities of real human beings.

Let us consider where ethics and its professional proponents -- the academic ethicists -- stand today in actually having anything of substance to contribute to our zest to comprehend human behavior. On the one hand, we encounter the overtly unweened, game-playing theories of analytic teachers of philosophy. Having spent more time than I welcomed around these sophomoric professional rhetoricians, I came to the conclusion in my youth that these people had nothing of substance to add to human behavior or morality. How one intends to speak about real people by repeatedly referring to them as "agents," and encapsulating people in totally arbitrary hypothetical circumstances, has always puzzled me. It is not until one meets and spends some time with the analytic professors of philosophy that it truly dawns on us how banal and hollow most of their assertions and methods truly are.

Then, we also encounter the social-political ideological radicals who insist in passing themselves off as professional ethicists and world-class moralists. These people are no more effective in reflecting about human morality than the analytics. Yet they are vastly more dangerous. Just imagine Marxists lecturing free men on the virtues of democracy and personal liberty. A ludicrous proposition, eh? These radical ideologue professors of ethics are usually as morally bankrupt or professional pretenders as clowns are raucous in a circus act.

Schopenhauer's essays The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims showcase the otherwise gloom of the German thinker's other works in a superbly positive light. There is nothing technical in these two essays. This makes these works timeless philosophical gems. Even though, it can be pointed out that those who understand his metaphysics of the will and the world, the phenomenal and the noumenal will undoubtedly relate these essays to that metaphysical underpinning. Yet the great value of these prescriptive works on morality is their prescience as masterpieces of natural psychology. Undoubtedly, Schopenhauer's perspicuity in matters of life and death, our inner constitution versus the conception that others have of us, and personal respect as opposed to the treatment we receive from others, put the industry of modern-day pop psychology and ethics to shame.

These two works of morality explain and elucidate man's nature in ways that mark the staple categories and characteristics of man's nature for all time. Schopenhauer's depiction of man -- the man in the cafes, in the street corner, the one we encounter at the workplace -- is as complete, and dare I say, as exhaustible as any fashionable, psycho-babble can ever pretend to uncover.

Given the biting truths that Schopenhauer uncovers about man's nature -- truths that can be traced back to man's earliest history -- his thought retains today an eternal wisdom that is undeniable. Consider that today's ethics, as this is deemed by academics, cannot help but to eventually recoil into relativistic categories that are the outcome of a thinly veiled social-political agenda. Sadly, this is where we stand today in our politicized conceptions of human behavior. There are many titillating reasons for this: the destruction of objective standards of reasoning, our experimentation with sexual mores, our refusal to abide by the dictates of objective reality regardless of the demands that this makes on our life and choices, and the collapse of all moral standards. We have effectively destroyed all of our moral standards and replaced them with our personal desires. Having said this, we continue today to insist that we can still make sense of human reality and the world.

Some professors of philosophy today present ethics as the result of arbitrary movable standards that are the simple result of historicity. Ethics, according to some of our leading academics, has everything to do with our social environment. That is, our social-political conditions determine what we believe is right and wrong, true or false, good or bad, and lately, as we continue to dismantle the objectivity of science, what is up and down. Ironically, what history demonstrates so well is that it is individual men who create society. This, in turn, brings about the moral, societal expectations that ethicists today refer to as being relative in nature. We have indeed tried out as many types of societies in human history as we have been quick to conceive them. In every one of them there always surfaces that undeniable, pesky entity called man. What we actually encounter in history, and which our disingenuous age has all but ignored, is the foundational moral constitution of individual people.

In the estimation of this writer, the study of ethics finds itself at a crossroads today. It has become all but apparent that man's social-moral-political "evolution" might in fact not be as infinite in make-up as previously believed. As we continue to exhaust the moral categories and principles by which we have always lived, perhaps we are now coming to the realization that our moral categories are perhaps no more than a handful. If this is indeed the case, as I am suggesting, we need to ask ourselves the timely question, "What is next for man?" This is precisely what William Butler Yeats has in mind in "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. [1]

The center, as the poet suggests, has been vanished from man's repertoire of thought and capacity for genuine sentiment. This has been the greatest aspiration of radical ideologues of different staples since the French Revolution. Yet this destructive fervor and resentment did not become fully instituted in our most cherished institutions until the twentieth century.

Without a moral center to guide and inspire us, humanity today wavers and vacillates in its ability to embrace contradictions, both in individual and collective life. Without a sense of conscience, which is allowed to exercise its common sense tools in our lives, what we have instead remains a very artificial and hollow conception of ethics. This elastic ethics that so many academics promote today is truly nothing more than the working-arm of positive law. Because conscience has been all but eliminated as a guide in our moral pursuits, what is left is merely an appeal to "what the law says." Of course, it goes without saying that this vacuous, workman-like movable "center" is only the precursor of anarchy to be followed by totalitarianism.

Schopenhauer on Conscience: What Lies Ahead for Man?

Schopenhauer begins The Wisdom of Life by citing the differences between subject and object as described by Metrodorus, a disciple of Epicurus: "The happiness we receive from ourselves is greater than that which we obtain from our surroundings." [2] The important point that Schopenhauer makes in this passage is his insistence that given the dual poles of man's existence: the world, or what are external events, and man's nature, all things human eventually boil down to the reality: "That the principal element in a man's well-being -- indeed, in the whole tenor of his existence -- is what he is made of, his inner constitution." [3]

Where, then, should ethics begin than by paying respect to man's inner life? Schopenhauer's thought, much like the brilliance found in the thought of other Stoics, addresses common sense in ways that many today have forgotten or systematically ignore. Schopenhauer views the subjective life as being in our control. The objective life, on the other hand, is our having-to-do, as Ortega y Gasset refers to our dealings with the world. The objective life, or what is the world-at-large Schopenhauer tells us, is essentially in the hands of fate.

The greatest deficiency and ultimate tragedy of so much of twentieth-century thought is the blind insistence that man's nature is determined by historical and environmental forces. This asinine assertion is particularly troubling, especially after so many profound immaterialist philosophers throughout human history have uncovered the principle essences that govern our inner nature. Consider what Schopenhauer has to say about the force of personality and consciousness:

Further, the constitution of our consciousness is the ever present and lasting element in all we do or suffer; our individuality is persistently at work, more or less, at every moment of our life: all other influences are temporal, incidental, fleeting, and subject to every kind of chance and change. This is why Aristotle says: It is not wealth but character that lasts. And just for the same reason we can more easily bear a misfortune which comes to us entirely from without, than one which we have drawn upon ourselves; for fortune may always change, but not character. Therefore, subjective blessings -- a noble nature, a capable head, a joyful temperament, bright spirits, a well-constituted, perfectly sound physique, in a word, mens sana in corpore sano, are the first and most important elements in happiness; so that we should be more intent on promoting and preserving such qualities than on the possession of external wealth and external honour. [4]

Thus, it is not difficult to see that consciousness meets with resistance in everything that it intends. For this reason, I will suggest that a genuine and sincere ethics is in fact a mechanism for assuaging or resolving contradictions in human existence. Ethics works to resolve contradictions in objective reality simply because these are unavoidable. For this reason, never should a genuine ethics entertain the dubious notion that it can impart any resolution to problems of human action and behavior. Ironically, given most people's incapacity to rule over themselves, it becomes necessary to construct laws that protect the greater good. This is the overwhelming role of positive law.

It is not until we begin to understand the role of conscience in individual human beings that we can comprehend how this aims to resolve contradictions. Perhaps the greatest claim that one can make about ethics is that it serves as a regulator of personal choice-making. Conscience is just this kind of mechanism, for it is a system of checks and balances that levels the field, as it were, in addressing concerns that pertain to personal behavior.

Again, in Counsels and Maxims Schopenhauer begins with an examination of the resistance that the will encounters in the world:

In both these cases what has met with resistance is the will; in the one case, as it is objectified in the organism, in the other, as it presents itself in the struggle for life; and in both, it is plain that the satisfaction of the will consists in nothing else than it meets with no resistance. [5]

The significance of this passage, I believe, is that happiness, conscience and ethics seem to be intertwined in ways that few bother to notice in our age. The opposite seems to be the case today, for quite often those who proclaim that man should do what is ethical are often the same vociferous forces defending multiple -- and contradictory -- notions of moral liberation. This ethical attitude ignores the ominous danger of embracing moral contradictions. One reason why this occurs, though, is because the central role of conscience has been vanished from our ethics. Today we believe ourselves to be totally liberated from our moral instincts made conscious. For this reason, Schopenhauer writes that our pleasures should be held captive by the self-restraint of conscience. He continues:

It is, therefore, a satisfaction which is not directly felt; at most, we can become conscious of it only when we reflect upon our condition. But that which checks or arrests the will is something positive: it proclaims its own presence. All pleasure consists in merely removing this check - in other words, in freeing us from its action; and hence pleasure is a state which can never last very long. [6]

How uncontemporary Schopenhauer's thought seems by suggesting, in an ironic twist, that happiness is in fact attained only when we understand the limitations, the resistance imposed on us by the objective world. This is a significant notion that, judging by all accounts today, cannot find any usefulness in our world. How can people who promote Statism, the Welfare State or social-political organizations that are founded on entitlement accept Schopenhauer's idea of renunciation? In effect, what he has to say on this matter is anathema to our day and age.

Our secularly liberated conception of happiness is contrary to Schopenhauer's. We are children of that great discovery of the latter half of the twentieth century: existential liberation from ourselves. This self-professed liberation has razed all of our moral convictions and diminished the effectiveness and integrity of our most cherished institutions. In its place, the vociferous proponents of radical liberation have built nothing but a self-consuming and paralyzing skepticism. Yet somehow, we now live under the illusion that we can still be moral agents. Unfortunately, today we actually exist more like beings that have been gutted; whose entrails no longer inform who we are inwardly. The greatest of these illusions, which border on the pathological, is the belief that we can be self-less, soul-less, center-less, committed altruists and at the same time strive to be ethical in our conduct. How soulless, merely biological beings, subjects subjugated to the demands of the state can still retain a vestige of responsibility, moral duty and freedom of choice, this does not seem relevant to the ethical equation today.

Schopenhauer's thought may not be making a splash on those who formerly might have been considered intelligent people, but the truths which he alludes to will not easily go away. When conscience, whether that which is understood as divine in origin or rational, and thus rationally revealed no longer play a decisive role in our conception of ethics, then clearly we can say with certainty that we are a demoralized people.

Conscience is a natural system of checks and balances whereby the rational component in our lives speaks to us about what is right and wrong. But rational, in this respect means intuitive more than self-conscious. Conscience is equivalent to personal identity, that portion of our selves that rules over us, but which is less obvious to others. We cannot readily disconnect our ethical behavior from conscience any more so than we can from personal identity. How some academic teachers of philosophy have made their claim to fame -- or their make-work careers -- arguing that the subject-I does not exist in itself, is tantamount to someone who claims not to speak a given language by communicating in it.

One of the notable problems with most ethical theories today is that they rationalize or over-intellectualize moral principles. This seems to be a paradox of sorts, something akin to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. When we observe people engaged in everyday activities, we quickly notice that for most the moral decision making process is exercised spontaneously. It is only when we engage in ethical "debates" that questions become unnecessarily muddled.

We have entered into an insidiously hollow and insipid age when reason is no longer held to be the final court of appeals in settling rational matters. Debating has become a pointless and fruitless activity given that the foundation of morality has been vanquished. In essence, debating today has become a rhetorical tool used for relativists to control problems of the day through obfuscation. This is why debating, as so many in academia are wont to value, is very much a root cause of propelling our nihilism forward to the next level of insipidness. This was not the case in previous epochs. Not long ago people actually presented evidence supplied by history, data, facts, and used demonstrable proofs to demonstrate the validity of arguments. There seems little use in debating in societies that do not retain respect for truth. Consider that we run out of a burning building, flee from the path of a wild animal, and duck from airborne objects without recourse to "theories" of action. Ironically, debating the virtue and merits of truth, moral goodness or the nature of the good life is rarely something that those who sincerely practice such things feel compelled to do.

Conscience is an intuitive mechanism that resists the pigeon-holding that is so prevalent in the minds of those who have made ethics their make-work. We live in an age when debate is employed not to establish the value and goodness of a given idea or belief, but rather, to debunk these. Debate has been turned into a tool for the negation of truth. As examples of this, we can cite how communism, socialism and Marxism in the twentieth-century made debate a staple of their mechanism of confusion, moral duplicity and terror. Debating the virtues of moral goodness is something that those who have an ax to sharpen are always interested in promoting. This is a central characteristic of dialectical materialism.

This is interesting in its own right in relation to Schopenhauer's philosophical system when we realize the value that he places on wisdom. What will become of man now that truth and wisdom have been completely charred as guides for human existence? It seems that much of our over-intellectualized, empty chatter today, whether in philosophy, morality, social-political questions or theology boil down to mere posturing. Looking about us to today, we quickly arrive at the conclusion that genuine thought -- sincere reflection that aims to guide individual's in appropriating their role in collective life -- is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Because the center has in fact been vanquished from human life, we no longer seek to settle questions with permanent answers. The heart and soul of the dominant paradigm today is a radical, ideological skepticism that is taking us to an unprecedented zombie-state where totalitarianism awaits us as the logical outcome of our hedonistic nihilism. Unfortunately, as Yeats' poem asserts, those who should know better -- those moralists who preach ethics as a secular religion -- have had their souls poisoned by very unbecoming, un-ethical wishes and desires.

In conclusion, I like to mention the late great Polish philosopher, Lescek Kolakowski (1927-2009). In a chapter titled "Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone" in My Correct Views on Everything mention is made of Kolakowski's compatriot, the thinker and writer, Czeslaw Milsoz. Milosz addresses the importance of maintaining respect and conviction in the words that we use every day. He references this in regard to the collapse of communism in Europe. Milosz writes:

What is surprising in the present moment are those beautiful and deeply moving words spoken in Prague and Warsaw, words which pertain to the old repertoire of honesty or the dignity of the person. I wonder at this phenomenon because underneath there is an abyss. After all, those ideas have their foundation in religion. And I am not over-optimistic about the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. How long can such notions stay afloat if the bottom is taken out? [7]


Jean François Revel and Anti-Americanism

Camus' Hero of the Absurd, by Pedro Blas Gonzalez

History of Philosophy, Modern

Ethics

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Copyright (c) 2010 Pedro Blas Gonzalez All Rights Reserved


References:

1. 1. Trilling, Lionel. The Experience of Literature: A Reader with Commentary. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967, p. 120.

2. Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims. Translated by T. Bailey Saunders. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1995, p. 11.

3. Ibid., p. 12.

4. Ibid., p. 20.

5. Ibid., p. 7.

6. Ibid., p. 7.