Saturday, October 18, 2008

Conflicting Moralities

Good Saturday afternoon! And welcome to Lessie's philosophy class :) Today we're going to talk about Kant and Nietzsche (it took me forever to learn to spell that correctly :). Now because I only have the equivalent of a minor in philosophy, this may not be a particularly sophisticated analysis, but this is how I perceive them.

Kant has a lovely thing called the "Categorical Imperative". I'm sure I have the exact quote lying around in one of my books somewhere, but I'm going to paraphrase him (glancing around at bookshelves to see if the anthology I'm thinking of is within easy reach . . . doesn't appear to be. Paraphrase it is). His Categorical Imperative states that individuals should always be treated as ends in themselves and never as a means to an end and that when deciding whether or not an action is moral, one should consider whether it is universally applicable or not. Kant was rather stringent in his application of the imperative; he was wary of stepping outside the boundaries that he believed his imperative set. From this stringency came a profound sense of duty to others.

Learning my philosophy at a religious institution as I did, Kant's imperative was a convenient co-opt of the Golden Rule (which we all knew Jesus had come up with first, regardless of the fact that the Buddha and other proponents of the rule had lived hundreds of years before him). We commended Kant on his ability to rationally necessitate the Golden Rule; we were down right smug, I think. 

However, not only did Kant give us philosophically sound ground for being Christian, he also provided me personally with a reason to stay in what was a very . . . difficult, conflicted place, id est my marriage (which I had entered into before studying philosophy, btw). Not only did being Mormon-Christian require one to live the Golden Rule, but it also required one to live the commandments. My impression of the commandments at the time was skewed by well meaning but misogynistic religion professors who managed to turn even the parable of the talents into an admonishment to get married and have lots of children. Well, I had gotten married and had a child up to that point, but it had all been under severe cultural pressure. My husband's and my relationship had consisted of making out in the back of my car and talking about whether or not we should get married. I felt like I had a duty to marry this apparently righteous priesthood holder and so I did (although I look back now and see that I was actually going against Kant's ideas of treating him as an end rather than as a means to an end). After I got married, I realized that I really had nothing in common spiritually, intellectually or emotionally with my husband. However, in Mormonism, short of abuse or adultery, divorce is frowned on. Plus, I'd had a child with this man and that increased the amount of duty I felt in staying with him (if for no other reason than out of duty to the child to be raised in a two-parent home). It's amazing that in our co-opting of Kant's imperative, we had managed to twist it to the point that we actually were using others as a means to our own purported salvation (but we were doing it out of duty, by god!).

Now let's talk about Nietzsche. How do I describe Nietzsche? The Nietzsche that you learn about in undergraduate philosophy classes is famous for his Will to Power. At my school, his was a dangerous school of thought. He was blamed for everything from the Nazi invasion to our modern materialistic culture. His Will to Power asserted that the Christian ethic of pity and charity was weak and prevented humanity from reaching it's full potential. If you give to your neighbor, don't do it out of smug superiority but out of a sheer excess of your own power. Do it because you are a truly great human and that's just what great humans do. At the same time, though, Nietzsche advocated for a tantalizingly individualistic world view. For Nietzsche, the only authority that one need consult was oneself. I still remember walking out of my class the day we read excerpts from his "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" being changed forever. At the time, he was like a revelation from God. Nietzsche offered me the philosophical permission to make my life what I wanted it to be. He freed me from listening to outside voices like prophets and apostles. I think a part of me knew even then that reading Nietzsche had given me permission to leave my marriage.

My marriage wasn't what I wanted out of life. I had wanted to go to graduate school and immerse myself in academia (originally I had wanted to do comparative linguistics, but I fell in love with philosophy and changed my mind). My mother had told me that I couldn't have a career and be a good mother and so I had decided I just wouldn't get married and have kids. When I was in high school, this seemed like a good idea. But I had also internalized the idea that the prophets knew what was best for my life, and so when I was told that my life's work was to get married and have babies, I decided to do it and give up my career ambitions. After all, it was clearly what God wanted me to do.

The Kantian model was enough to keep me in my marriage until I realized at some point that I was simply making myself into a means for other people's ends. Also, as I lost my belief in an afterlife, I realized that I only had one shot at life--if I was going to do anything, I had to do it now and chances are I'd have to do it by myself. Finally, I got up the courage to switch my morality. I work from the Nietzschean Will to Power. Is it easy? No. Does it hurt sometimes? Yes. Is it fun hurting other people? No. But ultimately, I was hurting so badly by hanging on to the vestiges of duty bound morality that I knew I had to give myself permission to live for me. And so here I am. A little lonely from time to time, but lonely on my own terms. And for now, that makes all the difference.


angryyoungwoman said...

I think in the church women always end up a will to someone else's ends. Personally. Because we aren't given personhood--we can't be an end. We are a means for men to have children, we are a means for men to gain salvation, but we are never valued as simply an end.

djinn said...

I cannot tell you how much I love Nietzsche. Though, I too, have gotten a certain amount of flack.... I guess this ties directlyh in with the Patti Smith I posted earlier...

Jesus died for somebodys sins but not mine
Meltin in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me.

She grew up Jehovah's Witness, and so made a similar journey.

Lessie said...

Djinn, I am loving Patti Smith! As I said in my response to your other comment, I've been listening to a lot of anger music as well. I have a lot that I'm trying to work through. I'm so glad to have found another Nietzsche fan! I walked out of class that day deeply affected and knowing I had heard something that for me at least, was more true than anything the prophets had said up to that point. It took me a long time to realize that in actual practice, though.

AYW, I totally agree with your analysis. I remember right before I left the church emailing a mentor saying, "The church is all about men: created by men, for men, with a male savior making sure that men get to heaven. All women do is provide a means for making more men." Okay, that's not an exact quote, but that's the gist of it. It's ultimately why I left. I was not recognized as a full person.

darlene (doc) said...

I hope that ultimately your journey is a happy one, whatever end you come to.

My oldest daughter (31) joined the church as a teenager (long after I had left it) and I was astonished that someone who was a feminist genius could sublimate herself so thoroughly in such a misogynistic patriarchy.

She is still devout and I hope that she is happy in her beliefs, but I secretly suspect she would manifestly avoid Nietzsche to prevent herself from encountering a crisis of faith.

G said...

ditto what AYW said.
I think I need to brush off my old intro to philosophy book (If I still have it!)
great post, lessie.
and power too you on your will to power journey.

Chandelle said...

Great post! I'll have to dust off Nietzsche myself because I didn't enjoy reading him as an undergrad. I got hung up on his misogyny (which we've talked about before) and it was hard for me to look past it. But this sounds very interesting. As for Kant - love Kant. And so happy you left out of positivity. If women started doing for themselves instead of others, all religions would collapse.

djinn said...

Something just dawned on me; you look like relatives of mine. My father's family were some of the very first (and there weren't that many) families in your part of Idaho. We're prob. relatives. FWIW

Lessie said...

Darlene, I can see how it would be hard to wrap one's head around your daughter's participation in the church. I can certainly see Nietzsche causing a crisis of faith, he certainly did for me :)

Chandelled, yes, we've talked about Nietzsche's misogyny before. I could be mistaken, but from what I understand, some of the newer translations of his work (id est the ones not filtered through his sister's uber-conservative views) are much less offensive to feminist sensibilities. Also, I believe his love interest was one of the most progressive women of her time, but I don't have my book with me at work today, so I can't cite you a source for that right now.
Regardless of whether he was a misogynist or not, his ideas of casting aside authority and carving out one's own existence lend themselves to feminism.
If I ever make it to grad school, that's kind of what I want to do for my research--a comparison between Nietzschean ideas of power and feminist family/social ethics.

Lessie said...

Oh, and of course the changes that I think need to happen in light of this comparison . . . (implications, I always forget implications).

mfranti said...

these discussions are way thinky for me. and you guys are way too smart for me too..

but i'm commenting to show my support and doing the good friend thing.

mfranti said...

...and this comment is to make sure i get follow up comments.

Lessie said...

Mfranti, my love, once again you have underestimated your thinking abilities :) You know I appreciate your voice. You always keep it real. So if you had any thoughts on this, let's hear them :) You're safe here.

Chris Henrichsen said...

I am pretty sure that I tried to specifically show how the Categorical Imperative is not the Golden Rule.

Lessie said...

LOL, Chris. I'm sure you did. I had studied Kant before your ethics class though and was drawing more on those lectures than on yours.

It's good to see you, here. In case you hadn't noticed, you'll find out more about me than you ever wanted to know. So if you're not a big TMI fan, read warily ;)