Criticism of Morality Ruthless Criticism

Criticism of Morality

[Translated lecture and discussion by Peter Decker, Frankfurt, December 2005]

An amusing experience: the good that I have in my head, the good that I know is in me and that I obey, this good is not in the world. It would be a fine discovery to then say: well ok, I am probably mistaken about what the world is actually about. Perhaps I deceived myself, maybe it is about something other than what I imagined. It is an opportunity to make a leap into objectivity and ask: what is it really about?

Bourgeois individuals do not do this; they hold to their should. And they hold to their should to the point that they despair of reality. They live with the contradiction that they have standards in their head that they observe and that they know everybody approves of – this is the other crazy thing – they bring up standards and nobody contradicts them! One person says: as for me, I think one should think of the poor; the next person says: one should give more to those who do more; the third says: but one must not forget the mothers, they do the most of all and get so little; and a fourth says: a person must get something once in a while, he wouldn't do anything if he couldn't afford anything. And not a damn soul contradicts these sayings! Surely everyone agrees with each statement! You live in a world where your standards are absolutely approved of and yet nobody holds to them! It must be a world of universal rule breakers.

Again, this could present an opportunity: either it is universally disobeyed, then it is not a rule; or: it is a rule, then it can't be universally disobeyed. Moralists live with the thought: I know what is right – and basically nobody contradicts me – only nobody does it! And now comes a conclusion that contains an absolute Yes to capitalism in the subjunctive. This is important, and this is inflexible. “Yes” in the subjunctive says: of course, if I look around me, nothing is alright; but, nevertheless, everything could be alright if it were not for all these scoundrels and egoists and con men around me! One forms an ideal of the system based on this same system, and in the name of this ideal of the system, all the people in it are criticized. In the name of this ideal of the system, one can diagnose the reality of the universal disregard of everything good and nice. This is not an objection against the system.

In other words: it does not go very smoothly. One is familiar with the desperate cry of God seekers: is there no more God? And there is also a version of this with moralists: Isn't there any good? Or like the Schiller poem: loyalty is only an empty illusion! Moralists are always debating whether maybe everything is an illusion, maybe it is imaginary that there is an appropriate way to act, and is this the reason it does not at all exist in the world? And – this is now to be taken seriously – it belongs to the corruptness of moral consciousness that the question is held in suspense. This is an important point. Bourgeois people keep the question undecided. They do not make the transition to the thought: yes, the good matters and now I will impose it! That would be one possibility. Then they would probably become terrorists of the community. But actually only those who become fascists then say: everywhere there is only egoism, no more sense of duty, we must enforce this at last and force all the egoists for once to do their duty to the state! They become fascists. The other angle is the resolution of the thought: if the good standards that I always imagine never come into play, then what is it about? Then I am chasing after a mistake about the world. Instead, I will therefore be concerned about what really goes on. That would be a leap into objectivity, into forming a judgment that I need to study some economics and clarify the interests that conflict against each other.

Holding the matter in suspense is the absurdity. Do not give up the belief that the standards are already in the world and count in it, but also do not say in the light of objectivity that I was mistaken in my opinion about what I could expect. For example, people are thrown out of work; newly unemployed people are created every day. What do they say about it? Leave aside other arguments that fit in other contexts, such as mismanagement; the thought that only a mistake of management could have caused my bad situation, that my disadvantage happens only because they do not understand business, not possibly because they do their business and are competent at it. I want to take another tone when people say tearfully: so this is how the company thanks me after I busted my ass for it my whole life, this is how it thanks me! I would be happy to say to this person: yes, this is exactly your thanks! And then I am sure that I am misunderstood and get back: yes, this is how it thanks me! The difference is that I want to say: then take the thanks and scratch out the idea that thanks would be due and are to be expected and take into consideration that it just happens differently. And the other person always wants to say that the thanks which he could expect nevertheless – by the way, thanks means something quite material, i.e. it is not just spoken, but has a real basis of existence on which one can rely and trust – this thanks is still missing. To that extent, he is identical to me. But he hears nothing more, he believes: but they must thank me nevertheless! He simply does not want to give up the thought of this must nevertheless. And as long as he does not want to give it up, this person is lost. Nothing can be taught to him as long as he does not give that up! My counter – yes, it thanks you – is dead certainly misunderstood, so that he says again: it just does not thank me. He always means that there is a moral obligation on the other side, precisely by stating that nothing is to be seen of it, and he neither gives up the belief that a moral obligation is there, nor takes the point of view that if there is a moral obligation then he will insist that it be fulfilled. Neither. That is the corruptness of this consciousness: they believe that standards count, they experience that they do not count, and they neither eliminate the standards nor their non-validity. This consciousness is not to be shaken by bad experiences anymore. Morality processes bad experiences in this way. It thinks about the world, about the economy, about its position in the economy, sees that the entrepreneurs can treat them as badly as they want, and says only: they should thank me.

Question: But this is mostly addressed to someone who acts as if he was being realistic by saying that there must a politician who hears him, that the state must regulate something that is not there. He looks for someone out there who would still be decent. This is always in the tabloids: the entrepreneur does not thank me, now I have to go to a politician, or some high-level judge at an arbitration tribunal; so there is something else to dissuade him from.

The objection is that they address themselves to someone, to a higher authority, usually the state, which should then enforce this entitled requirement. This asserts that it is clear that the man has almost gotten over the fact that the entrepreneur does not visit him to pay thanks and that he does not honor his duty. I would like to still keep the point in mind, or hold to it: this is not so clear. Someone who complains this way thinks that the entrepreneur actually has a duty. If he thinks then of the state, he says: the state should help me, it will tell the entrepreneur from on high that he must also do his duty. But someone who thinks this way, first of all thinks that the entrepreneur has this duty, and he does not give up this thought. And this is the logic by which he understands the clash of interests as a form of co-operation, of mutual participation. And he does not want to give this up.

About this holding in suspense: you will not hear people, to save their lives, simply acknowledge that their interests are excluded. Completely without morality: the entrepreneurs are rogues? No, they just have an interest that does not get along with ours. And our interest does not get along with theirs. One or the other has to go: this you won’t get! And therefore it is meant quite seriously: the people believe that the economy is a community project. If they no longer believed it, then they would not appeal from the start to this actually valid thing that should procure this for them, because somebody, the entrepreneur, does not fulfill what is expected from his side. That is one half. The other half – and you take the words from my mouth – is the last word of the moralists. This discovery that there is no good in reality is only a call for state power! Now everything is turned around. Now, because of their moral misunderstanding of the system, the people become fans of the state power that imposes these conditions on them. With everything that they experience as negative, they approach state power over and over again and say that it should finally force all the participants to honor their duty because they will not do it themselves! In this respect, the consciousness of duty, the consciousness that, if one’s own interests are limited as well as the interests of others, then they would all have their place with one another – this is a consciousness of the necessity for restriction from above, one which can’t be outdone.

Question: I think the incorrigibleness of the moralist who constantly fails and continually renews himself is because he does not know the laws of capitalism and he also misunderstands the state. But then it is not so much a problem of morality, but ignorance of political economics. But the moral attitude is not actually wrong. The public requires it.

The last sentence goes too far. The moral attitude in itself would be not wrong, but only if combined with ignorance about the economic mode.

Question: But there is a difference whether I say: Kant’s moral philosophy is all shit! Or say: I can sharpen my moral consciousness with Kant, and if I combine this knowledge with knowledge of political economics, and knowledge of the state, then I am better off. I don’t need to throw Kant away.

Now the argument is: if people stick to conceptions about a duty of the entrepreneur, a should which they always find is not kept, then they have this backwards, of course, but it is because they have no conception of political economy, that they do not understand capitalist relations and interests, and then it comes about that that they think in moral categories and direct their interests to the general public. That was your contribution. They would not make an error, and therefore one should not criticize Kant and throw Kant away, but one should study political economy with the categorical imperative in the back of the mind, and then make clear that only in a socialist division of labor can one act in such a way that one's actions can obey a universal law, that this can only happen and be unassailably fulfilled in a socialist division of labor.

The problem with a moral explanation is not ignorance, but an alternative to knowledge. With a moral explanation – e.g., the entrepreneur neglects his responsibility to serve the welfare of his employees – one thus has an explanation. And because one thereby has an explanation, one also has no need to study the nature of the entrepreneur’s interest and its patterns because this question is already answered by the moral explanation. Here the belief is that the entrepreneur has a responsibility – one he neglects – for the welfare of people. Political economics must struggle with the situation that a need for explanation is absent because everybody already has their wrong explanation.

The moral worldview is a replacement for the explanation of the nature of the interests, and it is also a protection against any attempts at explanation. Therefore it is no good to say: then simply take moral thinking and add some political economics to it, and then everything will be for the best. It is always bad, also scientifically, to say that something is criticizeable or faulty because something else is missing; here because political economy is missing. This is always bad because then one could say: if it is not bad in itself, then it is good and we only have to simply add something else. However, that is not the case.

The moral duties for oneself, thus the categorical imperative: never make others only a means, let them also always exist as an end: what really follows from this is unclear. Slave-holding is thereby excluded, so one notices that it is a moral of bourgeois society, but what else? What else is excluded? Are part time jobs and low wages included or excluded? Is unemployment cuts for those who do not work at all also a way that the other is recognized somehow as an end in himself or is that finally too much, and he is only a means? (His misfortune in this case is just that he is not a means.) This is the other angle to Kant and the whole universalizing of interests. Simply nothing follows from the imperative to pursue only universal interests. With the all good will in the world, you can’t say: therefore I'll do this.

People say: you explain bourgeois moralizing as submission and double standards and that the moral world-view is for self-compensation, we happily accept all this, but, nevertheless, somewhere you need a motive. Many people think: if one calls for the creation of a better society, then one also needs values, principles, and you yourself need them. And then there are arguments again and again of the kind: if the errors of bourgeois morality are criticized, but also morality in and for itself, I myself would not be the best evidence because this would also be a kind of morality. If one rejects capitalism, if one criticizes capitalism and says that it is a bad economic system, then one also has to have standards, as well as values.

Careful! It is not like that at all. I represent and I also need no higher orientations to convince someone of the fact that the capitalistic mode of economy is no good. It is completely sufficient if one makes clear its functioning, its internal laws, how business works, and compares this understood thing with one’s interest. Then I need no higher orientations; I do not need my own values. I need no virtual community duties from which to then judge that this is a bad economic system. The proof: in a purely objective debate, if they would have a pure debate in the press, in economic discussions, in the trade unions (if one were led there, but it probably wouldn't be led there at all) on the question: does exploitation of the workers really exist or not? If the proof is conducted and it is accepted that exploitation exists, then there is nobody who is for it. The situation does not arise that someone says: exploitation prevails, but the only question that arises is how it is to be evaluated. This simply does not happen. Nobody says: of course, we exploit people like hell, but nevertheless there is nothing objectionable in this. This does not happen. Therefore we do not at all need to bother and we do not need standards with which we would be able, finally, to condemn exploitation. It is condemned. It is just a factual question whether it exists or not. Economists say that it doesn't happen. They say: the market finds out that people are not worth more than they get paid. Here one notices that someone who gets paid little is worth little. The question that must be posed and decided is: are they right or are they not right? But the question – the people are of course exploited like crazy, that could be good or that could be bad – this question we do not need to submit because it does not exist.

In this respect, comparing the understood thing to one's interest is absolutely sufficient and correct. Another story here: there is an argument of this kind by Max Horkheimer: once the philosophical basis for democracy is gone, after that there is no more way to condemn a dictatorship, unless one is not its beneficiary. Horkheimer requires points of view with which one can condemn a dictatorship, even if one is the dictator! And Horkheimer does not find the dictatorship well criticized as long as it is not criticized in such a way that the dictator is also against it. He would by no means like to let it matter that antagonistic interests confront one another, and say to the rulers: we won't play the game any more, we will no longer let ourselves be exploited! He does not want to let this count by any means as a good way to form an opinion. Here one notices that someone says one needs a concept of universal duty, one needs a conception of something like a good state, and then from that point every citizen may, indeed must, reject the exploitation system. But that the exploited reject the system of exploitation, he would say of this call: that is exactly the same kind of egoism as that of the rulers, only from the other side!

This kind of consideration is wrong. There is no common interest that stands above exploiters and exploited. There is nothing in common to which one should or could obligate the two. Then one should just admit that an antagonism is present, and then the large mass of those who play the bad role in this society say: we do not like this game, we want a different game. New rules! That is sufficient. In other words: measure the understood thing by one's interest – that is the active use of practical reason, if one wants to talk in the language of philosophers. It is wrong and stupid to measure a misunderstood thing by one’s own interest. But this takes place constantly. For example, following this pattern, after a lecture someone comes up and says: but it lacked entertainment value! One must say to this person: good man, that just was not the point; with a lecture, you must refer to what it was about. And if you want to criticize it, then you must say: the arguments were not good, that was not correct, he talked rubbish. These are things one can understand, which are appropriate references to such a thing. But to say that he played no music, showed no slides, and otherwise provided no entertainment does not fit this sort of undertaking. And to take only one from an abundance of examples – if people march off to war and come back from the war and say that there has never been so much comradery, then that is also a way that they relate the misunderstood thing to their interest and say that the war was also something good because there was a good unity between people that is not really there in everyday life now. To refer to the war as something that the war was not at all about, and thereby producing an opinion about the subject – that is stupid. But to relate the understood thing to one’s interest is generally most practically reasonable.

Question: With capitalism, there are some people who have understood it, but then it is still another fight to make this knowledge generally available. What is this other than morality? This position, to get together to read Marx, to hold talks, to persist in the cause even though you are few in number, this posture is eminently moral. It wouldn't happen at all without morality.

The argument was: to view capitalistic society, as I report it, this is one thing, but to then bring it to people and – without success, for decades – to do this persistently, to persist in the cause, this is a real model of a moral position. This was your contribution.

Question: Clearly, the ruling morality is the morality of the rulers. But it also exists within societies, within the different layers, in which people have concepts of morality, ethics, ideals, that should be seen in this connection. There was once talk of proletarian morality, now you speak only of bourgeois morality. Then there are people who say, we live in a postmodern world where this does not exist at all any more. Do you consider there to be a materialist morality? Is there a proletarian morality or is there only bourgeois morality, and, otherwise, nothing else at all? Proletarian morality, as I understand this, is independent of the system?

Moral thinking, as I spoke of it, is what exists today, in the first place. Proletarian morality existed when there was a communist party, when there was a class which separated itself as a class, which opposed the state, opposed the system – perhaps there once was such a thing. But there is no longer such a thing today. That is one point. Second: what was it which once existed and no longer exists today? This has a good deal to do with the formalism that I spoke of. The formalism is absolutely the same. There the individual proletarian was addressed about his duty to the class. There solidarity is called for, and solidarity enforces the call to honor the fact that the competitive interest of the proletarians – competing for the company, working harder than the next man – stands against the common interest, so that he must thus renounce his material, bourgeois interests so that he maintains cohesion with his class comrades, which he himself cannot at all actually afford from the point of view of his material interests.

Anyone who talks about proletarian morality also talks about morality in contrast to the interest. He talks of the fact that there were proletarian duties. And someone who talks in such a way may not simply just recommend to people: examine the world for your interest and give it a refusal if you find that it is systematically created against your interest. And then make it your interest to create a world here that fits your life necessities. But: the old socialists wanted the proletarians to do their class duties or their historical duties – in their minds, the working class had a historical duty – the proletarians were addressed, in opposition to their material interests, as people responsible for something higher. The formalism is completely the same as when one is addressed as a citizen opposed to one’s bourgeois private interests. And this relationship in principle is already backwards. The state socialists recruited with: proletarians, give up now for the future! Sacrifice for the good that is already on the way without you! Up to: join the good cause because it is the trend of the times! But always in the tone: the proletarians should fulfill duties. And that is already the error. With them the error is a total morality of sacrifice, and in upholding the universal duty, the state, the socialist state, then takes its revenge. It is a form of state idealism if one tries to obligate the people to something higher than their own well-understood reasonable interests.

Question: There is nevertheless also a materialist morality in contrast to idealist morality, or else we end up again with liberalism. Or is morality neutral? It cannot be only bourgeois.

Moral thinking, as we know it, as we experience it (what it was with the Indians 1000 years ago does not really interest us) is the illusory collectivity of the bourgeois competitive subjects. I do not want to talk about other conceptions; in Islam, obviously, it is not bourgeois morality that applies. One notices, anyway, that they do not have the idea of the free legal person. That is not their thing. There they just have more obligatory family relations, which they regard as the guarantor of the good. Other contents, but the conceptions of an obligating universal that the individual has to take shelter under, they also have that, absolutely.

Now we still have the challenge from a moment ago: the same morality! What is generally the lever for it? The thought: what you do there, arguing against capitalism, one doesn't earn anything from it. These are no means for one’s material interests. And this is correct: yes, it is no means for bourgeois material interests, quite certainly not. We put ourselves out here for the simple reason that the judgment we have about the world we have for well-founded reasons; we have good reasons to make this our thing. We are not in the interest of the future, the poor people in the labor offices, in the interest of somebody or other, but in the interest of our own freedom. We form our opinion about whether this is all a stupidity, and whether to put ourselves at the disposal of this stupidity, or whether we want to join against it. That is all. There is nothing higher to look for. The Marxist Leninists would have a mission. Or else: they speak in the name of the oppressed. This is always the route to maintaining a universal which one makes himself the representative of. This is not the case. We stand as alone as we stand, and we believe that someone only makes his own views for himself. And he stands only for himself. Not for history, not for the poor, or the weak, nothing. Everyone is for himself and he comes to the judgment that this is not good for us, and this is also not good for others, and because it is not good for them, they have in their own interest a reason to take our considerations for themselves also. That, in their moral consciousness, they have rebuffing defensive considerations, we continually experience this. That is why we actually reflect on nothing other than morality so much. Here is this firm faith that my interest has nevertheless a little place in this world. It cannot be that millions of unemployed persons are simply tossed away like that. This faith is the great bulwark against a completely rational questioning of what is really going on here. Once again: what I and people like myself do, say or write has nothing to do with the fact that we see ourselves performing a valuable duty.

Question: If two people have opposing interests, is there then a correct and a wrong interest? Which one prevails and which does not?

That depends on the contents of these interests. You go into a philosophy seminar, and then you are assailed by arguments of the caliber: someone wants to dance to loud music when someone else wants to sleep. Or in reverse: a blind woman stands by the road, do you want to push her into the road or do you want to help her cross? Actually, these are highly contrived trick questions: three people are on a raft and starving, one must be eaten so that the other two survive, is that arguable or not? It is not that such cases do not happen, the blind woman or the loud music. But they are deliberately picked out. One looks for examples where one can present a quasi-natural opposition between interests. Yes, they are there, opposing interests, which one should come to bear, which not? If they are in opposition, thus they really exclude each other, then there is also nothing to solve. One loses and the other one wins. Nothing else is possible there.

In this respect, if it caused by a lack of means, say there is only one loaf of bread and two people have to become full from it, such a thing can only be solved by production. One can cut the bread in half and both do not become full. The case with the loud music is somewhat different: one can say this happens as long as people are penned into such dreadfully small dwellings that they get on each others nerves. There will absolutely be conflicts because of the tightness of the living conditions, which does not have to be. This can also be eliminated, of course not in a moment.

Third, the example with the raft is really deliberately contrived. Because it wants to trap one in a moral dilemma so that one admits: yes, here is a moral dilemma, one does not know how one can solve such a thing. Fourth, it depends on the content of the interest. If the nature of the interests that stand in conflict mean: you do the work, I enjoy the fruits; and the other says, and now I do the work and you enjoy the fruits – in this clash of interests I do not have a large problem to decide which interest I am for. I also do not need to decide it, by the way, all by myself, I need only to ask the many people who do the work how they find this. They must relate it only to their interest. I do not have to play the judge at all: the entrepreneur is bad, the worker is good. It is uninteresting whether they are both good or both bad, this belongs to bourgeois society. Everyone who pursues a permissible interest is good in this respect; everyone naturally pursues his interest as well as he can against the others; in this respect, he is bad, of course. But this is why I do not care at all, this is not my arena. I only need to submit to people the question: are you happy to work your whole life so that others enjoy the fruits? Then people just decide what they want. The question, how do I judge between two interests, I do not need to answer this question at all, I do not want to judge this at all. I only want to present to other people the question whether they want the role that they play. Provided they want to really grasp what this role is. And this is not so common.

Two other points. First: in bourgeois society, just because people are moral, and in this amusing story morality exists in these rights, measuring one’s own and other’s interests by a higher duty, and it shows again and again that not a soul cares about oneself for this reason, the bourgeois world therefore creates for itself special arenas which are really only about morality: everything that falls under charity, giving. These are actions that have no other purpose than showing it really no longer concerns private interests and their palliatives (sometimes it is also that, such as when a large corporation publicizes how much it donates as an advertisement for itself, but this is a sub-point). In and for itself, if there is a tsunami, and everybody donates money and then really large sums pile up, then they search for fields in which they believe that the society is nevertheless a community, which is disproved again and again in the everyday life of competition by the conflict of interests; they show their faith that it is a community in which they are there for each other, where they pursue this belief especially and outside the world of competition. This then acts in relation to competition like Sunday acts toward the workday. In earlier times, it was quite straightforward that on Sunday something was thrown into the collection box in the church, in such a way that the true social conscience of the believers was at work, and on the weekdays one followed his business, and of course beats out what can be pounded out. The everyday life of competition consists of the fact that I pursue my interest, and thus limit the interests of others and destroy their success. The Sunday of mutual aid is staged so that competition is nevertheless not the last word. This activity, where everyone is genuinely altruistic sometimes, where everyone is there for once only for the others, this activity has its purpose and its value in the demonstration and activation of this attitude. And one notices that charity is unimportant in relation to its helpfulness. Charity is the story that one has made a donation, one did something nevertheless. The question is: what does this really help, if millions starve in Africa because they do not have means of living because they have AIDS, etc., and then 1000 people save up to build a well in some place? The question – what help does it do – is rejected. People say: I already know that, it is only a drop in the bucket. And that is then not just the argument that it does not help, but it is the argument: because I know this, you may not point that out to me as a demerit of my good deed. Thus bourgeois society has this need, precisely because it lives on the conflict of interests and because it always has doubts, simply on the basis of the evidence, that good is only an empty illusion, and says: if I do good, then it proves that nevertheless it is not only an empty illusion. And the nice part is: if humans are moved and must cry, then that always comes from their faith in the good that they have in each other finding confirmation: yes, others are also good. Then come the tears.

The second point here is important, this is not from my or a Marxist point of view the pleading: you are hard-hearted and don't really help anybody! This goes back to the starting point: if one criticizes morality, one is not for its opposite. Thus we criticize bourgeois society, that it puts the interests of one against the interests of the other, that it imposes antagonistic interests on us, that we are forced to compete for our living costs, that it brings us into a position where one must be able to afford it to be able to pay attention to others and where one actually cannot afford it, it is always a loss of one’s own interest when one does. That is a criticism of this society. Therefore it should never be understood as if one says that one should not help. If one might be able to help someone who is in a tight spot, why not? Against incidental hardships, incidental assistance is also correct. One must be clear about this: if someone needs two dollars, and you give them two dollars, you have helped this person. He had a problem and you had two dollars, so the problem is settled. However, this does not help at all against the systemic hardships – this is our objection against this society. Charity is ineffective against the systemic, necessary poverty. That is the criticism. The criticism is not that it is not materialistic to think of others instead of oneself. If we were able to buy out the poverty of the world, then we would do it. It lies only in the nature of the social order that this cannot possibly succeed.

To make another distinction against an academic point: Nietzsche was actually a brilliant mind, he noticed that morality is simply the negation of interests. And then he said: such a thing is slavish, such a thing is lowly, to bend oneself. He already saw this, not so long ago. But Nietzsche drew a peculiar conclusion from it: the lion has no conscience when he tears up the lamb. Here it is noticeable that he has decided for the other side. He said: in the bourgeois clash of interests, why not admit the bourgeois clash of interests to oneself? He has noticed the conflict very well and he has noticed that morality is, on top of it, the denial of mere antagonism. And then he said: nevertheless, this affected denial is hypocritical. If it is our nature to assert ourselves against each other, then we should just do it, but not with a bad conscience. And then he professes a master morality for asserting oneself at the expense of others. Life is a struggle, life is the will to power, so we must simply stop reproaching ourselves with demands for moral consciousness. To this one must say, Nietzsche discovered something and then, nevertheless, did not make the transition to the question: what are the interests that face each other really there for? But, just like the moralists, he has simply found these interests to be irreconcilable in nature and put himself on the side of the struggle and the will to power and the suppression of the weak. Thus, the criticism of morality is not to be understood as a subpoint to Nietzsche.