Ruthless Criticism
“Where would we be then, if nobody adhered to anything anymore ... ”

When decency becomes theoretical

[Translated from Contradictio]

Every moralist knows that one can argue badly for the morals to which one should nevertheless adhere unconditionally; and that somebody who asks very seriously why he should be moral cannot ultimately be helped. The argument does not cease for this reason. What has been said thus far also won’t violate the mind of a confessed advocate of the “higher values” to such an extent that he would stop imputing a kind of practical use to the object of his worship. With partiality he makes up frightening visions, which make representable in negative images the absolutely remote qualities of the beneficial works of morality in “our” – as usual, “imperfect” – society.

Without morality the world would be terrible

This is the message of all these fantasies about the natural state of man. What is the warning here? Well, one is supposed to imagine something like this: scarcely would “we” have made, e.g. some furniture – a proposal for a division of labor has never been posed out of mutual distrust of people towards each other – before an evil neighbor encroaches on us by force. Too lazy to collaborate on some woodwork to make something nice together, he forces us to give him the new furniture. In order to be safe from similar surprises, he uses slaves to expand his own home into a fortress. Getting the people to work is quite strenuous for this private warlord: constant supervision at gunpoint (stolen? self-made? one does not know ...), constant fear of an ambush. The man no longer sleeps, he doesn’t have a free minute ...

The moral of the story: someone who only looks after his own interest first damages all the others and in the end hurts himself above all. In this worldview, “man” is not just someone who has his own interests in mind. He is evil, wants to harm others and kills defenseless grandmas for 20 cents. Finding his advantage at the expense of others simply brings him too much joy to look for it somewhere else.

No question about it: one gets a picture of conditions without morality more easily. It would be really terrible:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society” and if the amoral apply themselves “worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, XIII)

All the images of chaos which are supposed to warn about the absence of morality are certainly garish: they thrive on the firm conviction that one’s own advantage can be sought only at the expense of another’s, and remind one of what makes the really existing capitalist world so unpleasant. It is sure to be true that where profit can only be high if wages are low, the realization of one interest includes the damage of the other’s. The images of chaos which are supposed to speak so persuasively for morality differ not only in one crucial respect from the reality of the competition society: they are extremely exaggerated; violence, murder and manslaughter are so ubiquitously painted there that it would be useless and pointless even for the winner of the war of all against all: a ridiculous horror show which no one really has to be afraid of. Nobody pursues murder for the sake of murder, war for the sake of war – not even the famous “fittest” who rules in this image of chaos.

With morality the world is terrible

In our country, in which everything is legally regulated, no one is maltreated out of the despotism and malice of humans – only to the extent that the labor laws permit it and the competitive ability of the profit-makers require it. With us, no tenant is unexpectedly thrown into the street by raid squads, but only after eviction proceedings and court orders; no war breaks out without serious cause and before the exhaustion of all diplomatic means by those who sit on the fence; and no rich aunt is murdered without there being something to inherit.

None of these harsh realities of the modern world are pointless and useless and most are legally regulated: as rights and duties, as permissions and obligations – wherefrom morality generally obtains its standards.

The cheap image of exorbitant and useless orgies of violence allows the real antagonisms to appear as evils restrained by morality, and the conditions get the nice praise of being not the worst that one could imagine – even if, on the other hand, they are also not as good as one could imagine.

The beautiful feeling of having escaped the worst is therefore rather cheap: the fact that the worst possible misdeeds (mostly) do not happen proves – just like that – that morality must have prevented them. Conversely, what one finds criticizable in the restrained conditions is reduced to the fact that morality still can not fully deploy its restraining effects: “Nothing straight can be fashioned from such crooked wood as that which man is made of.” (Kant)

Without morality it would be better

In any case, nothing would be missing: morality does not eliminate antagonisms, nor does it prevent murder and exploitation. A government that finds a war necessary and promising will not be deterred by moral scruples. It’s the other way around: no war is started by people and governments without the consciousness of being morally in the right! Morality is only good for the purpose of blessing one’s own undertakings. In the bourgeois world, no interest does not immediately arrive with credentials for its justification, present itself as morally restrained and with this argument demand the other’s moderation. This procedure is certainly only successfully carried out by the decisive authorities of society – because they do not depend on moral force to justify themselves. Nothing but this act of appealing to undisputed higher values would be lost “if there was no morality.” Every imposition on people – from ruinous jobs to layoffs, from education selection to military service – would no longer come with a moral explanation of their harmlessness.

People would have to see things as they are instead of wasting their intellect trusting or distrusting the moral justifications advanced for them.