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 denial of a particular thing. To scholars I leave the question of which approach the historical philosopher actually meant; this is my own personal take-away.
The Categorical Imperative may thus be a negative, a warning, telling us 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 I would express as follows: it does so apply to you. The implied justification to which this is a response is the infantile wail, “But – but, it doesn’t apply to ME!” Yes, sunshine, it does. It applies to everybody. In other words, you are not special, you do not get an exemption.
The virtue of standing the Categorical Imperative on its head is this way is, I fancy, that it now becomes better able to combat what may even be regarded as the root of all evil, namely the attempt to apply special rules to oneself.
It is, human beings usually feel, different when it is we ourselves who want to do something and are told we can’t. In order to argue that it is different for us, we take refuge in either one or the other lines of argument, and I cannot see that any third line exists. Either the 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, a priori unlikely to everybody other than the wailer who wants ethics not to apply to him. Why should he be special? Some people peddle a Great Sky Fairy that can tell them that they are special. Others do essentially the same thing in more secular words, as when someone claims to incarnate or be the voice of 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. He might be right about discerning truth, of course, while all the other claims are almost certainly bunk. It is probable, however, that all of these are mere protective coloration for the primary sense of being special.
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 indeed the centre of the universe. They are the centre of the universe in that they are inevitably of the universe-as-perceived-by-them. By definition! 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 just another claim to be special and thus exempt from the Categorical Imperative.
Since being the centre of a, repeat, A, universe is in fact the human condition, then for someone to regard himself as the centre of all possible universes is really not so very unnatural. He exaggerates, that’s all, and then he extrapolates to moral entitlement. 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 feeling, something to tell us that everyone is 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. If the constructors of ethical philosophies cannot, after all, derive an “ought” from an “is”, then perhaps we should cut the Gordian Knot by a decision to act as if they can. For the alternative is letting the It-doesn’t-apply-to-ME wailers have their heads, and then we shall be in the soup.
That one of history’s greatest philosophers wrote a seminal work that, if I have read him aright, 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 isolate and identify the tricks of self-exculpation. It may already have been done, though I would bet that if so, it has been done not by a moral philosopher, but by an American self-help hack with a fictitious doctor’s title. I should like to see it done by a philosopher of Schopenhauer’s calibre, if any can still arise, 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, such a work would analyse just how human beings go to the bad, and above all, what they are telling themselves as they become more and more rotten. For no man is a villain to himself, and he is greatly helped to maintain his self-love amid even his worst atrocities by the self-exculpations that other men have dreamed up, even if they themselves never did anything frightfully wicked. The enablers, as always, must bear their share of the responsibility. And it goes without saying that we should be on our guard if we hear any of these Bad-Guy-ological lines, and beware of using them ourselves. We may expect a priori that the Bad Guys do not want us to deconstruct their techniques of exculpation, wherefore their attempts to raise a dust ought all the more urgently to be subjected to a cold-eyed analysis.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to July 5, 2013)
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody