05 September 2014

The sklavenmoral of the master class

David Brooks has described Russia's interventions in Ukraine and the rise of the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq as "revolts of the weak." That sounds paradoxical since both ISIS and Vladimir Putin are perceived to advance their interests through raw application of force. To call them "weak" is almost to say that strength, or at least brute force, is weakness. However, Brooks isn't talking about physical strength or the kind that finds expression in warfare. Instead, Russians, Muslims and others are "weak" if they "can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization." By appealing to pure force, "they are conspiring to blow up the rule book."

When is strength not strength but weakness? When a transvaluation of values is underway. Brooks's column put me back into the Nietzschean frame of mind I've worked within on and off for a while recently. It had struck me that in modern times we had seen an ultimate transvaluation, an upending of Nietzsche's own genealogy of morals. As I remember it, he theorized that morality, as we know it, arose from a revolt of the "weak." Previously, when the strong, or strength, ruled without question, people thought only in terms of good and bad. Strength was good, the lack of it bad. Morality introduced the idea that the opposite of good was "wrong" or "evil." The strong should not claim power simply because they are strong; to thus rule over the weak was morally wrong, if not evil. Nietzsche proposed that the weak conquered the strong, on one level at least, once concepts of morality prevailed at every class level.

Nietzsche imagined morality as the revolt of have-nots against haves, and so called it a sklavenmoral or "slave morality," but in the 21st century morality both sides appeal to its principles. Isn't it a sklavenmoral, a repudiation of strength, when the haves tell the have-nots that they may not take what they need to survive (or simply what they want) even though they can, presumably, through strength of numbers -- either in raw physical terms or through the vehicle of democratic government?  Here's an important difference: the sklavenmoral of the have-nots targets the haves' conscience by calling them evil and warning them of divine retribution or other bad consequences of their abuse of power, while the sklavenmoral of the haves targets the conscience or, rather, the low self-esteem of the have-nots by calling them weak and arguing that they don't deserve the things they want or need.

Sklavenmorals are probably inevitable in any competitive environment. In less philosophical terms, this sort of morality is rooted in the feeling that your more successful competitor has cheated in some way. That feeling presumes that your own way of doing something is sufficient if not exclusively correct, and shields you from the more painful conclusions that someone else's way is better or that you're inherently limited no matter what way you do things. When competition is a given, any rules proposed are inevitably self-serving. The rich have gotten wealthy the right way, for instance, and it's wrong for others simply to take wealth from them by force or other means the wealthy don't respect. Force is proof of bad character and an essential weakness of those who can't play by the rules. True competition, however, has no rules, and the only true rule is that which ends competition -- or at least competition for survival. By Nietzschean standards that itself is slave morality, and by my own it still is, I suppose, since I'm proposing a competition against a natural order of competition with the rules changed in my favor. This anti-competitive morality has one special virtue, I suggest: it'll never be hypocritical, as nearly all other moralizing is, whether philosophical or political.


Anonymous said...

"Instead, Russians, Muslims and others are "weak" if they "can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization."

So whose set of rules does the US play by when they decide to simply invade sovereign states, overthrow their "duly" elected rulers, send the nation/state into a downward spiral of chaos and violence and then denounce others for doing the exact same thing! In fact, one could honestly say that what Russia did in the Ukraine simply PALES in comparison to what is going on in Iraq right now.

I would say that the United States isn't "morally weak", we are completely morally bankrupt.

Samuel Wilson said...

It would seem that when you're a "free country" you get to make your own rules, the most important of which is that "freedom" is always in the right, while those who oppose you also oppose freedom and thus are self-evidently evil.

Anonymous said...

So it would seem that free countries use no method of objective standards...or perhaps they simply have no standards at all.

Samuel Wilson said...

Maybe that's what makes them "free."

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, going back to the original quote I started with, one would ask did the Russians, Muslims and others have a voice when those "rules of civilization" were created? It seems to me that any nation that publicly espouses the virtues of democracy must recognize that the very basis of democracy is equality - everyone has an equal voice. And any nation that claims to espouse the virtues of christianity would do to remember the main tenet of said religion: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

It seems to me that the United States fails on both counts.

Samuel Wilson said...

You catch the west in a sensitive spot here. Many westerners might well deny that the "normal rules of civilization" were arrived at through any voting process -- they'd be the believers in the sort of "natural rights" that alleged authoritarians inevitably violate. But civilization can only be enacted through positive law, which means exactly the sort of equitable input you demand, even if the result contradicts certain notions of natural right. By my own definition there's nothing "natural" about civilization, and so "natural rights" have no veto over it, unless we all ultimately live by the wilderness rules under which authoritarians and other bullies presumably prosper.

Anonymous said...

I concur that there is no logical basis for an argument supporting "natural rights". In nature there are no rights, there are only predator and prey. I know there are any number of persons who think that would be a "utopian" society, but they are in a minute minority.