How an Ethics Course Changed My Life

When I was an undergraduate at Marietta College, I was fortunate to take several philosophy courses with Elizabeth Steiner Maccia. Her classrooms were overflowing with students eager to learn this esoteric subject from her, and her reputation was well-established when my fellow classmate and mathematics student, Jim Murtha, said “You ought to get a course from Liz Maccia; she’s good.” I think it is fair to say that Elizabeth Maccia’s course on Ethics changed my life.

If my memory serves me right we read four original works, one each by Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Friederich Nietzsche. I approached all my college courses just like I had my high school courses. I went to class, took notes, studied hard, and got generally good grades on a test. Aristotle’s Politics was interesting, but when we got to Kant, I was blown away, no, transformed.

It’s been sixty years, so I might get a detail here and there wrong, but I believe she had us read Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant’s book was published in 1785. It is no mere coincidence that the Constitution of the United States was being written in 1787. Kant’s writings buit on the Enlightenment idea of men entering into a rational social contract to secure and protect individual freedom, and these writings influenced our governing document. To protect everyone’s freedom, we all agree to live within a legal sytem which protects freedom.

What got me so excited about the little book with the long title was that Kant was laying out the foundation for a rational and objective ethics. In it he argues that the good will—that will which has the pure intention of doing what is right (whatever that may be)— is, to a rational being, a perfectly good thing. He then sets about to establish a principle, elaborated in several forms, by which a person with a good will can live. Here is one such statement, “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Kant called this principle the categorical imperative. It’s also sometimes called the universalizability principle. It’s not quite the same thing as the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.” It’s more cerebral; it envisions a community of people asking “What is my duty?” And neither one of these rules is the same as “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” That’s the kind of ethics we try to teach toddlers when they start hitting their playmates.

Well, because of Kant’s “monograph,” as Dr. Maccia referred to it, I was hooked on ethics/philosophy. I carried that thin paperback around with me day and night for the rest of that whole semester. And a decade and a half later, when I began to teach philosophy of education at the university, my general approach to ethics was neo-Kantian, as elaborated by the British philosopher, R. S. Peters, in the book Ethics and Education.

Of course, there are a lot of other approaches to ethics that merit serious consideration and have their devoted followers, and Professor E. S. Maccia introduced me to two of them.

About the time we in the USA were starting our Civil War, John Stuart Mill was beginning to develop his theory of utilitarian ethics. He proposed that happiness is the greatest good, and that, when individuals are making their moral choices, they should pick the action which will maximize happiness. He asserted that all other moral principles are derived from the Greatest Happiness Principle. His book, Utilitarianism, published in 1863, was widely circulated and read. This is by no means an uncontroversial approach to ethics, but Mill has had a huge effect on our philosophical thinking, especially during the 19th Century. One effect of such an ethics is that it forces us to think about the consequences down the line of what we do. That, of course, is both a strength and a weakness, because it’s sometimes not at all clear what the result of choosing this or that action will be.

For Kant, the good life was spelled out in following this set of rules that were designed to appeal to the rational mind. For Mill, we become calculators of consequences, maximizers of mirth. While I could understand the importance of maximizing happiness in our lives, the ideal of polishing my will until it shined held sway over my still very limited but gradually expanding life experience. Yep, I decided, I was still a neo-Kantian.

Both Friedrich Nietzsche and his ideas made it into the 20th Century. He died in 1900 at the age of 55, suffering a complete mental and physical collapse at age 44. He is famous for arguing both that the will to power, not rational action, is the primary determinant of human behavior, and also that this is as it should be. Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, became his caretaker in the last three years of his life. During her life, Elizabeth aligned herself with German nationalism and antisemitism through her marriage to Bernhard Förster. Förster left his high school teaching job to become a leader in the German nationalist movement. It was through Elizabeth’s curation and actual alteration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings that they became an inspiration for and associated with German militarism and National Socialism.

Getting my mind around Friederich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil turned out to be quite a project. There were just too many challenges in his philosophy to my rather conventional Christian upbringing. I’m not going to try to do a good job of presenting his core concepts, but this quote from Wikipedia will serve as a springboard for this discussion:

In [Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche] exposes the deficiencies of those usually called “philosophers” and identifies the qualities of the “new philosophers”: imagination, self-assertion, danger, originality, and the “creation of values.” He then contests some of the key presuppositions of the old philosophic tradition like “self-consciousness”, “knowledge”, “truth”, and “free will”, explaining them as inventions of the moral consciousness. In their place, he offers the “will to power” as an explanation of all behavior; this ties into his “perspective of life”, which he regards as “beyond good and evil”, denying a universal morality for all human beings. Religion and the master and slave moralities feature prominently as Nietzsche re-evaluates deeply held humanistic beliefs, portraying even domination, appropriation and injury to the weak as not universally objectionable.

With Nietzsche, we don’t so much get rules for guiding our lives as we get permission to be rule-breakers. He thinks that humans are still evolving, and it is doubtful that any system of moral thought—even the system of the “Chinaman of Königsberg” (Nietzsche’s snarky characterization of Kant)—is valid for everyone and every age.  He sees these grand ethical systems as the crystallized and hand-painted neuroses and psychoses of their philosophic creators. The new humans who will evolve will not want to subject themselves to an “ethical” system that treats everyone the same, for they will not be the same as everyone else, i.e., “the herd,” they will be better, superior to most people. They may even want to dominate their inferiors, treat them as slaves, experiment with forms of control that are actually torture in disguise.

One other aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophical thinking I’d like to note before moving on is his attachment, not to philosophy, but rather to art and music as our inspiration and guide. He proposes more of an aesthetic, rather than an ethical Weltanshauung or worldview. Creativity more than duty is important to him. He notes that in Ancient Greek culture two elements existed, one represented by the god, Apollo, representing harmony, progress, clarity and logic, the other, by Dionysus, representing disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy. Both perspesctives are essential for an aesthetic view of life, but the Dionysian element is essential for overcoming inhibitions and breaking boundaries.

Appalling as aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy were and still are to me, I find great value in reflecting on his perspective. Here I was, a naïve college student still much attached to family origins and traditional Christian values, even though I had professed agnosticism at that point. Still, my very well-developed conscience told me that living an aesthetic life beyond moral control was likely to lead me into unexplored, dangerous and even sinful territory (from my own perspective). Nietzsche did not snatch Kant’s monograph from my trembling hands.

Nietzsche was visionary in imagining a future of super humans who exist beyond good and evil. (He would have said “supermen;” for Nietzsche, women existed to be possessed by their male lovers.) A defect of his vision is that he did not give us clear criteria by which we could distinguish evolved human beings from their inferior predecessors.

There are and will always be pretenders to the throne of superiority. They, of course, are absolutely convinced of their magnificence, though others may not be so impressed. Indeed, one even might make the argument that any human being who claims to be superior to the herd has just disqualified themself. And this is precisely why the very First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, indeed, the very first words of the amendment, state “government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Human beings are zealous in the pursuit of elevating their own preconceived notions into universal law. Therefore, any human beings in government are prohibited from so doing by our Constitution.

One of the failures of Nietzsche’s vision has to do with the evolution, not just of the human race, but actually of a new dimension in our experience, cyberspace, and a new dimension of our thinking, artificial intelligence (AI). Computer scientists are now predicting that by 2030, AI will catch up with and surpass human intelligence. Far from becoming super human, it may well be that super intelligence incorporates human beings as a component in a larger system. Let’s just hope that any future evolutions of Hal think like a Kantian rather than a Nietzschian philosopher, or some of us are doomed.

So here we are on Planet Earth, the first generation of humans to live in the Anthropocene Era. In the past, massive species extinction has been a sure sign of a severe suppression of all life on Earth. And here we are in the USA, where a current political party has decided to flout due process in the interest of re-establishing a set of values that favors white males over other members of the human species. The system of checks and balances that were put in place over two centuries ago was inexorably evening the playing field, so the Republican Party went Nietzschean on us. They are beyond good and evil, in the worst sense. Their maxim is “Do anything to win, and blame any bad results on the opposing party.” They definitely are not following either a Kantian or a utilitarian ethics.

And here am I, still a believer in the social contract, still a neo-Kantian, and a Christian, to boot. What am I to do? Well, my deontic, or duty-based, ethics gives me a very clear road map for my future. I may not know how to maximize good in the USA in this era of profligate public prevarication by poseurs to the presidency. I may not know how to live “beyond good and evil.” But I sure as hell know what my duty is. I shall act accordingly.




Author: Jym Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.

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