So if you wanted to come up with some sort of foundation for ethics, what would it be? Is there any way you could explain it? Can you explain altruism? Is there a principle behind it, a thought, an idea behind ethics or morality? How would attempt to explain why one should be ethical, moral, or kind even? History has given many different answers to this but Schweitzer says in The Philosophy of Civilization that they continually fall from one paradox to another and have failed to give us any sort of firm foundation. He says that looking back, the only thing we can gain from the history of ethics is “a certain amount of clearness about the problem of ethics.” They were, he says, attempting to ground it out of what they knew about the world, through their knowledge, through their world-view. He says we need to separate any knowledge we have of the world from our ethics. Resign to knowledge when it comes to ethics because ethical action is illogical and can stand, ultimately, on no interpretation of the world but only out of one’s inward impulse. It cannot come out of some systematic interpretation, and it’s only firm foundation is out of one’s own inner reflection stemming from one’s own life.
Anyone who undertakes the voyage to true ethics must be prepared to be carried round and round in the whirlpool of the irrational. (pg. 292)
In the old rationalism reason undertook to investigate the world. In the new it has to take as its task the attaining to clarity about the will-to-live which is in us. Thus we return to an elemental philosophizing which is once more busied with questions of world- and live-view as they directly affect men, and seeks to give a safe foundation to, and keep alive, the valuable ideas which we find in ourselves.
Man must finally be content to force himself to acceptance of the ethically expansive life-affirmation, merely because he feels it to be the only things which is capable of making life valuable. (pg. 258)
It is certain further that true ethics are always subjective, that they have an irrational enthusiasm as the very breath of their life. (pg. 299)
First of all, why the obsession with Ethics? Well, one of his first conclusions, one of his main questions and purposes in this book is to find out what civilization is, or is built on. He says society needs ethics. Civilization thrives when it is ethical, when the aim is general prosperity for everyone, where the struggle for existence is lessened, and where each individual is valued. The lack of ethics, or at least the lack of a real living ethic, was what he believed was driving civilization to its demise. One is needed that dealt not simply with society at large but with person to person, personality to personality, with human to human relationships, and not only that, but to all of life.
Only in proportion as the prevalent philosophy is world- and life-affirming and at the same time ethical, do we find ideals of civilization put forward and kept influential in the habits of thought of individuals and of society. (pg. 91)
The criterion of a real code of ethics is whether it allows their full rights to the problems of personal morality and of the relation of man to man, problems with which we are concerned every day and every hour, and by means of which we must become ethical personalities. (pg. 151)
Ethics had many different motivations, but it seemed to be losing it’s ground, and becoming more and more out of touch, even, unethical. Many explanations, when led to their conclusion, Schweitzer thought, did not lead to the ethical. Others had lost touch with reality. And others didn’t have any foundation against the pessimistic and inexplicable suffering found in the world.
For example, many have explained ethics through ego, through the idea of self-preservation, or one’s own happiness or pleasure. Maybe ethics is simply a way of getting along with others so that I can move forward in this world and survive. But, as much as these may lead to a bit of ethical action, they only lead there insofar as something is gained for one’s self. They go no further than that, and thus aren’t all that ethical, or at least do not have the type of ethic that Schweitzer is looking for. They are more self serving, and deceive us from any sort of guilt and outward impulse.
Others had explained ethics as an invention of society—that in order for society to work it needed to create ethical values to keep people in line in order to work together. This again, though, makes more of a utilitarian ethic, abstracting the ethical from reality. It serves the collective progress more than giving meaning and value to individuals, and forces an ethic upon people from above, rather than allowing it to flow from within, taking away from conviction and even personalities.
A similar sort of abstraction happens in Kant, who had tried to build ethics upon a universal principle. Schweitzer calls it his “empty imperative.” He points out that Kant (as well as many others) had viewed morality and ethics as consisting in static universal laws which end up being not quite ethical. They end up dealing more with abstract ideals and principles than the world in front of us, being more supra-ethical than ethical. Ethics need to have, he says, an empirical ground, dealing with the material here and now rather than what ends up being a cold relation to some principle. There is something empty, something robotic, about morality, or kindness, coming from a duty that I must be kind, that I must follow some ethical universal. Rules and principles can detach us from reality and bind us to follow them for our own gain. To appeal to a law or principle can lead to injustice rather than justice and human dignity. They perhaps distract us more than ground us, and detract us from something much more fundamental and meaningful.
According to Nietzsche, accepted ethics are deficient in veracity, because the conceptions of good and evil which they put into circulation do not spring out of man’s reflection on the meaning of his life, but have been invented in order to keep individuals useful to the majority. The weak proclaim that sympathy and love are good, because that is to their advantage. Thus led astray, all men try to force themselves to the opinion that they fulfill the highest destiny of their existence by self-sacrifice and the devotion of their lives to others. But this opinion never becomes a real inward conviction. They live out their lives without any thought of their own as to what makes life valuable. They join the crowd in praising the morality of humility and self-sacrifice as the true morality, but they do not really believe in it. They feel self-assurance to be what is natural, and act accordingly without admitting the fact to themselves. They do not question the general ethical prestige of humility and self-sacrifice; they help to maintain it, from fear that individuals stronger than themselves might become dangerous to them, if this method of taming men were abandoned… the ethics of humility and self-sacrifice do as a matter of principle avoid engaging in a clear and practical discussion with reality. (pg. 244)
Nietzsche and others started pointing out these failures and begun attempting to ground ethics on more elemental impulses. This, Schweitzer says, ethics needed. And this was bringing ethics closer to a more firm foundation. But not quite. There were two main problems with many of these. Either they were not yet giving up their interpretation, or they had nothing to keep them from completely resigning to life itself in the face of pessimism.
The western world had mainly interpreted life through what Schweitzer calls an optimistic-ethical point of view—an assumption that there is a general purposiveness to the universe that leads to progressive perfection. Schweitzer wants ethics with an optimistic-ethical, life-affirming, impulse, but believes the western optimistic-ethical interpretation of the world is bankrupt. It assumed automatic progress, that knowledge could only lead to better and better, but befooled us to escape the suffering around us, concealing the pessimism behind it. He says the facts were pressing up against it. Knowledge hadn’t led it much of anywhere. It had only sidetracked it, even blinded it. There was an irony in the fact that aeroplanes could carry men through the air, over hunger and pillaging below. Schweitzer says we need to give up our world-view and wholly separate our world-view from ethics, and adapt ourselves to the facts. Our knowledge gives us no answer to the meaning of the world, nor towards ethics, nor gives us anything life-giving that is able to stand against the pessimism that surrounds us in nature.
Our age is striking out unmeaning in every direction like a fallen horse in the traces. It is trying with external measures and new organization to solve the difficult problems with which it has to deal, but all in vain. The horse cannot get on its feet again till it is unharnessed and allowed to get its head up. (pg. 271)
The hopelessness of the attempt to find the meaning of life within the meaning of the universe is shown first of all by the fact that in the course of nature there is no purposiveness to be seen in which the activities of men, and of mankind as a whole, could in any way intervene. On one of the smaller among the millions of heavenly bodies there have lived for a short space of time human beings…. We are entirely ignorant of what significance we have for the earth. How much less then may we presume to try to attribute to the infinite universe a meaning which has us for its object, or which can be explained in terms of our existence!
It is not, however merely the huge disproportion between the universe and man which makes it impossible for us…. Any such attempt is made useless beforehand by the fact that we fail to succeed in discovering any general purposiveness in the course of nature. Whatever we do find of purposiveness in the world is never anything but an isolated instance… . [N]ature does sometimes act purposively in a magnificent way. But in no way does she ever seem intent on uniting these instances of purposiveness which are directed to single objects into a collective purpose… . She is wonderfully creative force, and at the same time senselessly destructive force. We face her absolutely perplexed. What is full of meaning within the meaningless, the meaningless within what is full of meaning: that is the essential nature of the universe.
European thought has tried to ignore these elemental certainties. It can do so no longer, and it is of no use to try. The facts have silently produced their consequences. While the optimistic-ethical world-view is still current among us as a dogma, we no longer possess the ethical world- and life-affirmation which should result from it. Perplexity and pessimism have taken possession of us without our admitting the fact. There remains, therefore, nothing for us to do but confess that we understand nothing of the world, and are surrounded by complete enigmas.
Life attracts us, they say, with a thousand expectations, and fulfils hardly one of them…. Unrest, disappointment and pain are our lot in the short span of time which lies between our entrance on life and our departure from it… . Our existence is at the mercy of meaningless happenings and can be brought to an end by them at any moment… . Every thinking human being makes acquaintance with this thought. We let it take a deeper hold of us than we suspect from one another, as indeed we are all more oppressed by the riddles of existence than we allow others to notice. (pg. 279)
So, says Schweitzer, we have to abandon the previous ways we’ve attempted to come to ethics. We have to admit to our lack of knowledge and come towards ethics through a resignation to knowledge. Knowledge will not give us any meaning of the world, and it will be forever incomplete. And so we resign to it. Ethics is irrational. And the only true conviction and grounding for it comes from our own subjective reflection and impulse. How do you give ethics any sort of grounding without being relative? What do you base it on, if anything? What is left that gives us this impulse? And is there anything that helps us face the suffering and enigmas we find around us? Schweitzer says it is this: our own will-to-live, our own inner manifestation of reverence for life.