A Return to Selflessness

Is the bankers’ greed motivated by a Nietzschean ideal?

Of all the commentaries on the economic crisis, those that have focused on the character of the bankers involved have intrigued me the most. What sorts of moral principles, if any, could they have had in mind when they undertook the most speculative of trades? Were they driven purely by a vicious self-interest unique to their profession, or did they simply exploit a porous system, as so many would have done in their place? I believe the truth lies somewhere in between these two positions, but with a significant level of personal greed. The point I wish to emphasize here, however, is that acting in self-interest over and above that which our conventional moral discourse deems reasonable is not conducive to the general well-being or utility of society. Further, this level of self-interest and disregard for standard ethical principles is one that [the philosopher] Nietzsche would readily espouse. As such, we are able to see the real consequences of adopting his philosophy today, and how this is potentially harmful to society.

So, my basic point is that Nietzscheanism is not utility-enhancing. My argument runs as follows. Infamously, Nietzsche claimed that our conventional, Judeo-Christian, moral dogma actively limits our ability to flourish as human beings. Specifically, the capacities of the highest type of individual, his übermensch, were restrained by an ethical approach that was too other-regarding. Naturally, the weak should be subject to the will of the strong, who should assert their dominance as they see fit. Only then can their potential be realized and great things be achieved. The übermensch is the wolf, which should rightly stand above and apart from the herd of sheep that is the majority of society. The moral outlook we have adopted fails to put enough emphasis on the moral push of the individual for Nietzsche, and unnaturally (and therefore unjustly) protects the weakest amongst us.

Prima facie, Nietzsche’s position has a certain intuitive appeal. This is why it reappears time and time again, to justify the gains from pursuing our self-interest more, since it would allow us to develop our talents to their fullest. The conclusion, presumably, is that allowing the most naturally capable to work towards their own ends, uninhibited by the thoughts of others, would do us good in the long run i.e. would maximise utility.

However, such prescriptions omit the simple fact that our standard ethical ideals, when enacted, serve a certain utility-improving function. That function is one of social cohesion, which is fostered best when at the forefront of our minds are very standard moral principles such as ‘do not steal‘ and ‘killing is wrong’. This can explain why many societies who have not accepted Christian, Western-style norms have died out, or remain underdeveloped. Nietzsche wishes to remove entirely the influence of the stigma that comes with breaking our current ethical code. I would argue that this is a significant force that can prevent people conducting actions that undermine general utility in the name of self-interest. Increasingly, well-being, satisfaction and happiness are fostered effectively by philanthropic and charitable activities. Where would the place for these be in a Nietzschean world? Nietzsche actually considers many supposed cases of ‘charity’ actively harmful to both the recipients and the donors. I find this assertion ridiculous. Any economist could tell you that, thanks to the diminishing marginal utility of income, the charitable donation of wealth to the poor may actually enhance overall utility. But Nietzsche rules this possibility out entirely. Ignoring the needs of others completely as he seems to suggest will almost certainly not be conducive to the greatest good of man.

Moreover, I find it hard to see how even some of the most naturally gifted individuals will succeed under any moral code that Nietzsche would accept (for I think he may well accept one that would favour the flourishing of the übermensch). Removing the moral pull that others have on us appears to naturally tend to a ‘dog eat dog’ world. How is anyone to show artistic merit, for example, when the will of the strongest can be fairly and continually imposed on them? This is a point made by Philippa Foot: individuals can better flourish and achieve great things when there is an equality of opportunity that allows everyone to do so. Hence, I would reject Nietzsche’s ideals in favour of conventional morality.

In the 21st-century Western world in particular, I feel a large dose of conventional, other-regarding morality is desperately needed. Harmful self-interest is not limited to bankers; greed corrupts almost all of our lives. Our politicians have been revealed to be no exception. It may sound naïve and foolish, but what is needed more than anything is a return to traditional values that put the emphasis on the majority. We are too short-sighted when we forget them in the name of a Nietzschean denial of the Judeo-Christian mantra. I am, of course, not saying that Nietzsche is somehow to blame for the selfishness and greed of the modern system. I have simply put forward the case that his ideas are compatible with it. The consequences of this type of thinking are now plain to see.

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