Saturday, February 02, 2013

Part 4 of "Nietzsche's Sociobiology of Animal Morality"


Nietzsche identifies only the "beginnings" of the virtues as animal, In the writings of his middle period, he makes it clear that while the evolutionary precursors of human morality can be found in nonhuman animals, the full development of morality requires the evolution of culture and reason in ways that are uniquely human.

In Human, All Too Human (40), he writes:
"The super-animal [Das Uber-Thier].  The beast in us wants to be lied to; morality is a white lie, to keep it from tearing us apart.  Without the errors inherent in the postulates of morality, man would have remained an animal.  But as it is, he has taken himself to be something higher and has imposed stricter laws upon himself.  He therefore has a hatred of those stages of man that remain closer to the animal state, which explains why the slave used to be disdained as a nonhuman, a thing."

The evolutionary history of morality has been a cultural evolution driven by the errors of religion, art, and metaphysics.  The cultural epochs are "systems of thought and feeling" that constitute a distinctive ordering of the good.  So, for example, "if someone prefers revenge to justice, he is moral by the standard of an earlier culture, yet by the standard of the present culture, he is immoral" (HH, 42, 274).  These errors were chains that human beings put upon themselves so that they would no longer behave like animals.  This great goal has been achieved, because now man "has in truth become gentler, more spiritual, more joyful, more reflective than any animal" (WS, 350). 

This history of cultural evolution has shaped the anatomy of the brain--the oldest parts of the brain manifesting the oldest epochs of human evolution and the latest parts manifesting the latest epochs.  Unusually cruel people might be people who have by accidents of heredity brains structured like those of our prehistoric ancestors (HH, 43).

But now that this cultural history of errors has succeeded in separating human beings from the animals, the next great goal is to throw off these errors as scientific knowledge and the pursuit of truth grow.  Yet this must be done cautiously, because only a few human beings are capable of becoming free spirits embracing scientific philosophy.  The time has not yet come for all human beings to become free-spirited lovers of truth.  Such a life--in which the love of scientific inquiry is the highest pleasure--must be a life for only a few individuals who can live for the sake of Socratic science (WS, 350).

Previously, Nietzsche observes, culture developed unconsciously, but increasingly it becomes possible for culture to develop consciously through a scientific understanding of cultural history.  "The new, conscious culture kills the old culture, which, seen as a whole, led an unconscious animal-and-vegetable life; it also kills the distrust of progress: progress is possible" (HH, 24). 

And yet, progress is not necessary.  Each epoch of cultural progress brings some loss, and it's possible that scientific culture could be completely lost in a reversion to barbarism (HH, 24, 239, 251, 262; WS, 183, 222).  After all, some cultural epochs have shown regression, as when the scientific culture of the Renaissance was later reversed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which retarded the growth of science until it's revival in the 18th century (HH, 237).  Even earlier in ancient Greece, when Socrates turned away from the natural philosophy of the pre-Socratic philosophers, he thus slowed the development of natural science, which was later revived by the Epicureans, and then much later renewed by modern scientists in the Epicurean tradition (HH, 68, 102, 261, 275; WS, 192, 227). To assume that cultural evolution is always and necessarily progressive would be an illusory "deification of evolution," as if evolution were guided by some divine mind (HH, 238).

Now it is possible for a scientific free spirit to repeat in his individual life all the cultural phases of previous human history.  He can move from religion to metaphysical philosophy, to art, and finally to science.  He can thus recapitulate in the first thirty years of his life perhaps thirty thousand years of human cultural history.  He can climb a cultural ladder of a hundred rungs, understanding each cultural epoch through his own life experience, and yet rising above each as he recognizes the impure thinking at its foundation.  He thus becomes "an inevitable chain of culture rings," deducing the course of cultural history in general, and trying to project the future culture.  He does all of this purely for the sake of knowledge as the sweetest pleasure (HH, 272, 276, 278, 292).

If one were such a man, Nietzsche explains:
"one would live among men and with oneself as in nature, without praise, reproaches, overzealousness, delighting in many things as in a spectacle that one formerly had only to fear.  One would be free of emphasis and would no longer feel the goading thought that one was not simply nature, or that one was more than nature.  Of course, as I said, a good temperament would be necessary--a secure, mild, and basically cheerful soul. . . . a man from whom the ordinary chains of life have fallen in such measure that he continues to live on only to better his knowledge must be able to renounce without envy and chagrin much, indeed almost everything, that other men value.  He must be content with that free, fearless hovering over men, customs, laws and the traditional evaluations of things, which is for him the most desirable of states." (HH, 34)
Such a man faces the end of his life without fear.  Nietzsche observes:
"Only when you are older will you perceive properly how you listened to the voice of nature, that nature which rules the world through pleasure.  The same life that comes to a peak in old age also comes to a peak in wisdom, in that gentle sunshine of continual spiritual joyfulness; you encounter both old age and wisdom on one ridge of life--that is how nature wanted it.  Then it is time, and no cause for anger that the fog of death is approaching.  Towards the light--your last movement; a joyful shout of knowledge--your last sound." (HH, 292)  
This could be a description of Charles Darwin.  Before his thirtieth birthday, he had sailed around the world on the Beagle, using scientific observation and inference to study every stage of human cultural evolution--from the primitive foragers of Tierra del Fuego to the global civilization of the British Empire--while beginning to explain how this human history could be understood as part of the entire evolutionary history of life on earth.  At the end of his life, he wrote his Autobiography, which included the history of his moral and religious beliefs--from theistic religion to agnosticism to sceptical rationalism--and concluding that without any belief in a future existence with rewards and punishments: "I believe I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science" (Autobiography, Barlow ed., 95).

Nietzsche believed that modern science had to reverse Socrates' turn away from natural philosophy to moral and political philosophy (described in Plato's Phaedo), because modern science needed to explain how human life could be understood as part of the natural history of the universe, and thus fulfil the dream of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the unification of all knowledge (HH, 261).  (In Consilience, E. O. Wilson presents his own program for the unity of knowledge as a fulfillment of what the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had sought.)

Similarly, when Darwin died in 1882, Thomas Henry Huxley's obituary in Nature compared him with Socrates:
"One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates.  There was the same desire to find some one wiser than himself; the same belief in the sovereignty of reason; the same ready humour; the same sympathetic interest in all the ways and works of men.  But instead of turning away from the problems of nature as hopelessly insoluble, our modern philosopher devoted his whole life to attacking them in the spirit of Heraclitus and of Democritus, with results which are as the substance of which their speculations were anticipatory shadows.
Like Nietzsche, Darwin thought that while morality could be explained as having evolutionary roots in the animal world, morality in the strict sense was uniquely human in combining social instincts, habituation, language, and reason.  Morality required innate emotional and intellectual capacities that had been shaped by natural selection.  But the full development of those capacities into morality required cultural evolution.

Also like Nietzsche, Darwin believed that this cultural evolution of morality could be seen as progressive, from the lower morality of savage societies to the higher morality of civilized societies.  The morality of savages is erroneous because they fail to see the bearing of the self-regarding virtues on the welfare of the tribe, because they lack self-control, because their sympathy does not extend beyond the tribe, because they enforce the good of the community in ways that ignore the welfare of individuals, and because human reasoning has not developed sufficiently to allow thoughtful individuals to become the judge of their own conduct.  On all of these points, modern moral culture is superior (Descent, 120-122, 129-37, 141-51, 157-59, 163, 169, 171-72, 679-82, 688-89).  Eventually, the growth in sympathy, self-command, and reasoning could produce a universal morality.
"As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.  If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shows us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures.  Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions.  It is apparently unfelt by savages, except toward their pets.  How little the old Romans knew of its is shown by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions.  The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas.  This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings.  As soon as this virtue is honored and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion." (Descent, 147)
Of course, it would be a utopian delusion to expect that we are evolving into a world of perpetual peace and love without any conflicts,  because even if we extend our moral sympathy to all human beings and perhaps even to all sentient beings, that sympathy will always be stronger for those beings closer to us than for those far away, and that love of one's own will always produce tragic conflicts of interest.

Nevertheless, as I have indicated in some previous posts, books like Robert Wright's Nonzero, Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, and Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist provide evidence and arguments for the kind of cultural moral progress foreseen by Nietzsche and Darwin.  Indeed, the preceding passage from Darwin's Descent is quoted in all three of those books as a statement of what those authors see as the fundamental pattern of human evolution. 


Troy Camplin said...

All of this reminds me of the psychosocial theory of Clare Graves, more commonly known as "Spiral Dynamics," after the book with that title by Graves' students, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. Indeed, I argued in my book, Diaphysics, that Nietzsche's ideas could be understood in that light. Give the ways the ubermenschen has been misunderstood, though, I was a bit cryptic in my reference, though.

SM said...

Could you differentiate between the "cultural moral progress forseen by Nietzsche and Darwin" and that of Herbert Spencer?