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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Passion in ethics

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Well, I had to buy one of Solomon's books. Sadly, they're not cheap. I opted for The Joy of Philosophy. After all, I've made big claims for loving it. Irritatingly, it looks like I would have had free access to it had I waited for my course to start and the advantages that might bring me as far as getting hold of texts is concerned. Still, I'll choose not to brood.

In this work, he's arguing for bringing the 'thickness' of experience, emotion and life back into the study, which he claims has become 'thin' - purely analytical, logical and reductively reason based. I think that's why I love philosophers like Midgley and Murdoch. Their work is rich and full and engaged. I've been reading Scanlon lately and it's a struggle. As was Singer's work - though both argue their cases persuasively. I just want to feel the force of more than reason. The life and the enthusiasm of Gottleib's The Dream of the Enlightenment was such a pleasure in contrast to the drier texts of pure rational argument.


Solomon claims that Nietzsche was a proponent of virtue ethics, but with a different model from that of Aristotle. He says that the style, exuberance and overstatement on Nietzsche leads to him being seen, as he did in fact describe himself, as an immoralist, but that really he was making a case for passionate engagement in life. I think we can see this in the discussion on resentment - even if Sartre not Nietzsche was the one who made use of the sour grapes story. This actually relates to Dan Fincke's conception of ethics, in which he draws on Nietzsche's concept of power - not power over others, but more a self-mastery.

Self-mastery, for Nietzsche was not the self-mastery of the Stoics, but rather was related to creative power: the power of the artist, poet, musician). This demands a passionate but disciplined self that has overcome itself. We see here an affiliation with both Murdoch and Midgley, the need to look outwards, to be engaged in the world. Indeed, Nietzsche stresses naturalness in response, rather than ongoing reflection and rationalisation. For him, the place for reason lies in action. This sounds paradoxical, but what I think is intended is that rational action is effective action. Progress towards an aim shows that one is acting rationally. Thinking about it gets you nowhere.

The virtues for Nietzsche, on Solomon's reading, are: courage (to fight rather than to suffer), generosity, honesty, trustworthiness, justice, pride (as in self-belief and pleasure at one's achievements), friendliness, wittiness and, unexpectedly, courtesy. The take is Homeric and pagan rather than Aristotelian or Christian, and he rejects moderation. So, courage isn't about overcoming fear, but more of a gung-ho attitude to life. Generosity isn't overcoming miserly self-interest, but an overflowing gift-giving. Life in this view is lived with joyful abandon; there's a sense of fullness (rather than always the consciousness of limitations); it's the extravagance and vivacity of the great-souled spirit.

This life has depth - and 'having soul' in this sense means that, along with passion come conflicted, complex and agonistic experiences. It is the complete opposite of the calm apatheia of the Stoics, ataraxia of Aristotle or equanimity of the Buddhist sage.

One is virtuous not as a duty, that runs counter to one's self interest, but one lives out the virtues with whole-hearted conviction.

The discipline comes in prioritising for the ends in which one is passionately engaged, the projects to which one is committed. That, in Murdoch's terms, is the eros. For Nietzsche, though, the telos might not be Truth or the Good, but some creative endeavour. The attempt to live one's life to the full in the finite time one has, while also being virtuous. The difference, I suppose, is that the aim is not a transcendent abstract or spiritual goal, but something vibrantly, passionately of this world, of this life.

Nietzsche's virtues do ensure that it's an ethical life. And if one is inspired, like Martin Luther King, to feel that passionate commitment in a noble cause, then one could live an exceptional life. It's clear it fits the bill for real artists - but also for scientists, mathematicians, cosmologists, inventors, entrepreneurs...

But what about the rest of us?

I think that there is great value in emphasising the urgency to really live rather than just exist. And I think that we can all benefit from developing greater joie de vivre - which can so often come from simply engaging in the world, in nature, in conversation. But in the same way that one could criticise Aristotle for validating the experience of the Athenian gentleman, so Nietzsche perhaps validates the experience of the free-spirit. Even Murdoch can seem as if she is speaking principally for the privileged and super-educated, though she is at pains to state that is not her case. Yet something in all these examples can appear 'elitist'. Yet one does not wish to discount them - as it seems wrong to propose that normal folk should stick to utilitarianism or deontology.

There is not, in my opinion, just one way to live a good life - though, having read Singer's arguments it is very hard not to feel like one is a moral bankrupt every time one buys something unnecessary for oneself (The Joy of Philosophy) rather than giving the money to an audited charity. Perhaps one of the reasons why I resent utilitarianism is because I end up feeling that I am 'not good enough'. I don't have the same emotional antipathy to the other schools of ethics. Maybe it's more comfortable to feel that I need to learn to be better more than simply to realise that I should give more.

Though I have yet to be convinced that the greatest number of lives equals the greatest happiness. But that's for another day.

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