Towards A Science Of Bad-Guy-ology

In my youth I remember a university tutor praising me for saying that Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative was nothing but a Teutonic pomposity for what we have always known as the Golden Rule. Forty years on, I now feel a sense of shame at this, somewhat ameliorated by a suspicion that I am not alone in failing to give Kant the credit he deserves.

It may well be the case that what Kant thought he was doing was creating ethics ab nihil, deriving moral rules from logic in a godless universe. What I have learned from him, however, is something different. I see the Categorical Imperative as a corrective to or a very particular error. To scholars I leave the question of which approach the philosopher actually meant.

My personal take-away is that the Categorical Imperative is a negative, a warning, something that tells not what is ethical but what cannot be. The most fundamental moral law is not do-as-you-would-be-done-by, although you are free to enact that if you want. Even the inverse formulation do-not-do-as-you-would-not-be-done-by is a mere application of a principle more general still. This principle I would express as follows: it does so apply to you. You are nothing special, you do not get an exemption. This is a response is the infantile wail, “But – but, it doesn’t apply to MEEEE!” Yes, sunshine, it does.

The attempt to apply special rules to oneself is arguably the root of all evil. Human beings tend to feel that it is just different when we are in the hot seat; that it is simply different when it is we ourselves who want to do something and are told we can’t. We then take refuge in either one or the other line of argument, and I cannot see that any third line exists. Either our situation is different from that of other people who seem at first sight to be making the same choice, or else we have some sort of special dispensation. The first case is at any rate possible, and so it is always worth discussing whether our situation does actually fall under the rule or not.

The second case seems, or should seem, unlikely to everybody other than the wailer himself. Why should he be special? Some people peddle a Great Sky Fairy that can tell them that they are special, and why. Others do essentially the same thing in more secular words, as when someone claims to incarnate History – as if History is a spirit and not just a word for, as the man said, “one damn thing after another”. For history read also Destiny, whatever that is supposed to mean, or the deserving social class, or the nation, or some principle or other, some truth that only the wailer can discern. Being alone in discerning a truth is always possible, but otherwise his claims are almost certainly bunk – mere protective coloration for the primary sense of being special and exempt from ethical rules.

And why does he feel special? Well, it follows from the essence of living creatures that they perceive the world through their own senses and thus not through anybody else’s senses. Everybody is by definition the centre of the universe-as-perceived-by-them. Some mystics have claimed that they can perceive other universes, can look through someone else’s eyes, but then we need to ask whether this is yet another claim to be a special snowflake and thus privileged to do what the rest of us ought not.

Given the fact that being the centre of a, repeat, A, universe – the universe-as-perceived-by-me – is the human condition, it is not so very unnatural for someone to regard himself as the centre of all possible universes. He is exaggerating, that’s all. As Aristotle said, to live alone we need to be an animal or a god, we are social creatures. Ergo, we need something more than infantile self-centredness, something to tell us that everyone else is equally the centre of his universe, no more and no less, and that we are thus not in the slightest degree unique and privileged. This we call ethics. It is an act of the understanding and an act of will.

That one of Kant’s key works was designed to combat the root of all special pleading ought to tell us something. Just as Schopenhauer wrote a sardonic vade mecum called the Art of Controversy, listing the dirtiest tricks of argumentative rhetoric, so too might we list the most dangerous tricks of self-exculpation. It may already have been done, although possibly by an American self-help huckster with a fictitious doctorate. I should like to see it done by a top-flight moral philosopher and be called something along the lines of A Science of Bad-Guy-ology.

Instead of preaching to us about what we ought to do (which we have always known, the problem is doing it), A Science of Bad-Guy-ology would analyse just how human beings go to the bad, and above all, what they are telling themselves as they become ever more rotten. For “no man is a villain to himself”. In the midst of even his worst atrocities the bad guy is helped to maintain his self-love by the self-exculpations dreamed up by other men, even if the latter never did anything frightfully wicked themselves. Enablers, as always, must bear their share of the responsibility. And so we should be on our guard if we hear any of these typical self-exculpation lines being parroted, and beware of using them ourselves. It may be taken for granted that the Bad Guys do not want us to deconstruct their techniques, wherefore their attempts to raise a dust ought all the more urgently to be subjected to a cold-eyed analysis.

Posted on July 5, 2013 at 19:22 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

Leave a Reply