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In its search for values that will satisfy men‘s pursuit of canonic, absolute and thus dogmatic morality, humanity has created a myriad of moral systems, ideas of good and evil, whose foundations, for Hobbs, lay upon external factors that shape our culture. If we then strip morality of its presupposed monistic omnipresence within one culture, all we are left with, as Hobbs says, are simply words that signify sets of rules that best tell us what’s right or wrong on a very small, isolated scale of time and space. In that sense, ancient morality of virtue, deontological ethics, morality based on Christian dogma or even complete moral pluralism, as different as they might be, have one thing in common – they dominated a certain period of history because of the ability and competence to best suit the needs and of people of that time.
If we look through the development of morality and moral philosophy as a science through the eyes of Leo Strauss, we can analyze ideas of righteousness in a time-space conditioned manner. Following a non-linear pattern, and abandoning the idea of continual ethical progress, helps us see that humans, as beings intertwined with duality of their nature, conceptualize morality as a servant for their needs. Plato and Aristotle, as timeless as they may be, couldn’t escape the influences of empiric perceptions and cultural conditioning. In that sense, although the morality or virtue and ideas of “vita contemplativa”, modesty and functionalism worked well in sustaining and organizing human urges for centuries they were overthrown by other systems because they too were inherently specialized to best suit Athens. The same can then be said about Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or any other morality system that doesn’t recognize itself as culture-dependent and pluralistic.
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The recognition of moral pluralism takes off the pressure of absolute morality that must claim to be perfect or superior to other moral systems in order to be respected, while simultaneously staying conscious to the idea that ethics is vital for maintenance of our societies. It condemns complete relativization of morality that nihilism offers us, and rather just views ethics as a man-made construct that is derived from our biological nature and social environment. It implies that we must use reasoning to come to moral conclusions instead of, in words of Camus: “committing philosophical suicide” by surrendering to canonic doctrines that help us escape absurdism.
The beforehand mentioned duality of human nature plays a fundamental role in the construction of moral values. The biological and reasonable, the primitive and the contemplative have to co-exist and co-create, but they are often internally clashing which leads to morality that is merely perceived to be in accordance with our reason. In saying: “Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men, are different”, Hobbes is pointing out that morality is not only relative, but furthermore a product of our raw greed and appetites and thus predetermined more so by our nature and senses than by reasonable evaluation. He frames ethics, not as ethereal and undeniable, but rather as codependent to our animalistic wants which form the social narrative.
Neitzsche’s idea of “slave morality” can be used to illustrate this claim. Morality of resentment, in other words “slave morality” vouches and praises humble, weak and modest people, and putts values that would form in marginalized groups upfront. In opposition to that, virtues that elevate men from others in a natural, competitive, evolutional setting such as strength and selfishness are tamed down. He therefore claims that humbleness isn’t derived from an honest desire for good, but that it is actually resentment that lies under a façade of empathetic modesty. Neitzsche’s example of the moral shift that happened with the popularization of Christian thinking that includes “morality of resentment”, serves to prove how viable our society is in determining both how we judge goodness and how we classify our animalistic actions. A façade of blissful ignorance towards our cruel and animalistic tendencies is the only thing that helps us see ourselves as better if our culture condemns such behavior.
For Hobbes the essence of human nature is our animalistic chaos, which we cannot escape even if we try to exercise ascetic practices or if we try to put ourselves on a pedestal of reason. The animal in us will always sneak under our conscious reasoning and effect how we act. Ethical principles can then just organize that chaos by making categories of good and evil, dependent on our culture which will lead them to be ever-changing. Sadly, for a man already frightened by his mortality, the idea of morale that decays with time just as he does is simply insufferable. If something as important as ethics is susceptible to such a degree of instability, and we too are aware of that - what does that leave us with? How does a modern man, whose society is arguably way more detached from our nature, than Hobbes’s was, accept the complete pluralistic scale of ethics without becoming completely pessimistic?
In terms of what’s first-hand familiar to us, it is globalization that unveils all the intricacies of culture-dependent values. It shows how it’s not the difference of values that unnerves us, but the awareness of them which leads to deconstruction of our belief that moral systems can be objectively placed in hierarchical order. With gaining consciousness of such cultural subjectivity a man finds himself in a state of revolt and pessimism. Combating them would then be to either accept that state of constant revolt as our fate, or to return to nature where all our biological urges excel. For our content, nature not only allows us more animalistic behavior but it also unleashes us from everlasting pressure of knowing the full range of differences. As for those who want to see the full perspective of what morality can mean in the never-ending “conversation or man-kind”, escape from absurd and the pursuit of serenity lies upon the creation of meaning.
Written by Anja Azdejković