Thursday, August 4, 2022

Schopenhauer on relative and absolute good

The following are selections from §65 of Volume I of The World as Will and Representation.

First, however, I wish to trace back to their real meaning those conceptions of good and bad which have been treated by the philosophical writers of the day, very extraordinarily, as simple conceptions, and thus incapable of analysis; so that the reader may not remain involved in the senseless delusion that they contain more than is actually the case, and express in and for themselves all that is here necessary. I am in a position to do this because in ethics I am no more disposed to take refuge behind the word good than formerly behind the words beautiful and true, in order that by the adding a “ness,” which at the present day is supposed to have a special [solemnity], and therefore to be of assistance in various cases, and by assuming an air of solemnity, I might induce the belief that by uttering three such words I had done more than denote three very wide and abstract, and consequently empty conceptions, of very different origin and significance. Who is there, indeed, who has made himself acquainted with the books of our own day to whom these three words, admirable as are the things to which they originally refer, have not become an aversion after he has seen for the thousandth time how those who are least capable of thinking believe that they have only to utter these three words with open mouth and the air of an intelligent sheep, in order to have spoken the greatest wisdom?

The above sounds like the kind of thing the later Wittgenstein, at least, might have agreed with. 

We now wish to discover the significance of the concept good, which can be done with very little trouble. This concept is essentially relative, and signifies the conformity of an object to any definite effort of the will. Accordingly everything that corresponds to the will in any of its expressions and fulfils its end is thought through the concept good, however different such things may be in other respects. Thus we speak of good eating, good roads, good weather, good weapons, good omens, and so on; in short, we call everything good that is just as we wish it to be; and therefore that may be good in the eyes of one man which is just the reverse in those of another. The conception of the good divides itself into two sub-species—that of the direct and present satisfaction of any volition, and that of its indirect satisfaction which has reference to the future, i.e., the agreeable and the useful.

Compare Hume: "personal merit consists altogether in the possession of mental qualities useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others" An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 9.1

This idea of good seems very much like Wittgenstein's idea of relative goodness or goodness in the relative sense.

It follows from what has been said above, that the good is, according to its concept, ["something belonging to the relative"]; thus every good is essentially relative, for its being consists in its relation to a desiring will. Absolute good is, therefore, a contradiction in terms; highest good, summum bonum, really signifies the same thing—a final satisfaction of the will, after which no new desire could arise,—a last motive, the attainment of which would afford enduring satisfaction of the will. But, according to the investigations which have already been conducted in this Fourth Book, such a consummation is not even thinkable.

Wittgenstein might sort of agree with this, seeing as he thinks talk of anything absolutely good or good in an absolute sense is nonsense. But he does not say that goodness is essentially relative, nor that absolute good is a contradiction in terms. He focuses, rather, on what people who use such words are trying to say.

If, however, we wish to give an honorary position, as it were emeritus, to an old expression, which from custom we do not like to discard altogether, we may, metaphorically and figuratively, call the complete selfeffacement and denial of the will, the true absence of will, which alone for ever stills and silences its struggle, alone gives that contentment which can never again be disturbed, alone redeems the world, and which we shall now soon consider at the close of our whole investigation—the absolute good, the summum bonum—and regard it as the only radical cure of the disease of which all other means are only palliations or anodynes. 

Here Schopenhauer too adopts the words "absolute good" for a kind of metaphorical use. That much is a bit like Wittgenstein in the Lecture on Ethics. But Schopenhauer relates the absolute good to the denial of the will, which Wittgenstein doesn't talk about.


  1. Well Schopenhauer thought that eradication of the will (understood as the source of desires for this or that) was the best thing, the best goal to look to realize, since desires only disturb us when unmet though meeting them never extinguishes the state of desiring but only pushes the current desire aside for the next. Like the Buddhists and Hindus, he rejected the pleasures of life as being the source of its pains. The truly moral person, he thought, extinguishes his or her desiring self and so achieves a kind of ultimate compassion because desires, the expressions of each self's selfhood as it were, blinds us to others. Only by removing the blindfold of individuated selfhood can we become truly moral on his view.

    There are some deep problems with his picture of the moral good (by tearing off the blindfold of selfhood we are more likely to treat other selves -- those still blinded as we were -- with disinterest than with the compassion he extolled as the source of all moral judgment). Is there any evidence Wittgenstein was at all sympathetic with Schopenhauer's picture of the moral good, do you think? From what I can see, Wittgenstein could be construed as being drawn to such an outside-the-world notion of ethics in his younger phase but I don't see how it would accord with his later work at all. On the other hand there ARE still echoes of this sort of thinking in the Lecture, no?

    1. I don't think there's much reason to think Wittgenstein accepted Schopenhauer's moral theory as a whole, but I think he was probably sympathetic towards parts of it: ethics not being a rational thing, fear of death and attachment to riches being bad, and so on.

  2. But how can moral comments NOT be "a rational thing"? We always look for reasons to do this but not that (when we are in a deliberative mode, of course). And we don't count something as morally creditable if we just did the thing by accident or did it because we gained something from doing it for ourselves (not in the usual sense of self gain, anyway).

    If we give charity because it makes us feel good or because others looking on will think better of us for doing it, then we say it wasn't done for a moral reason, even if it is understood by observers to have served a moral good. Or at least observers judging our action in a moral way would not count the action as moral. Schopenhauer makes this point, too.

    If we reduce moral valuing to having certain sentiments and acting on them, then we still have to have a reason to act on them and not do something else. If the argument is that sentiment is a kind of bottom line for moral choice but not for other choices we make, then, when it comes to the moral, we are saying that we can inculcate it in others through education or conditioning. But then, while we may have given those so inculcated a "reason" to act morally, acting morally itself would not be grounded in a moral reason.

    Once they realized they had been inculcated with the sentiment in question, or with the belief that that sentiment is the right one to act on, then they would lose any reason to act on it.

    For the early Wittgenstein it seems the moral right was somehow inexpressible (the Tractatus, the Lecture on Ethics), Like Moore's intuitionism, we know it, if not when we see it, as with Moore, then when we feel it. It is inexpressible but somehow shown, not described. And it shows itself to us as persons if we are sufficiently sensitive to this sort of thing.
    But the problem circles back then to why we should act on one feeling rather than another. We still have a choice to make and it is still a moral one and making a choice, in deliberative mode, involves identifying and relying on a reason to do so.

    As long as we are in a deliberative mode, as long as we are thinking about what we should do and looking for the right reason, we cannot avoid the need to justify our choices.

    We can, of course, justify what we do in lots of ways. But all of those ways are, finally, moral issues because even to act immorally is itself a moral decision.

    Should we be self-interested above all else, or on occasion place another's interest ahead of our own?

    We need a reason and moral discourse and the teaching it drives is about finding and applying the reasons that we take to be the right ones. In truth, I don't see how moral valuation can be anything but a rational function. Ethical inutitionism, whether Moore's variety or the early Wittgenstein's or Schopenhauer's for that matter (by demolishing our own connections to the universal Will we become inherently moral because moral behavior rests on a disconnect between the individual self and his or her world of desired things and so act rightly on mere instinct alone) doesn't seem to me a satisfactory way around this.

    In the end we must look to how reasoning itself works because there's no difference between deciding which road to take to get to the nearest city quickly and which act to perform when dealing with another. Of course different factors are to be taken into account in the two cases and there is a different area of attention in each assessment. But at bottom both are about considering the facts available to us and making a decision by eliminating other options in favor of some particular one. And that is a rational activity.

    1. Schopenhauer's view, roughly, I think, is that ethical behavior stems from certain feelings, not reasoning. So you cannot make someone ethical by teaching them rules, theories, etc. Any more than you can create an artist by teaching someone aesthetic theory. (I don't think he denies that some rules of thumb might be helpful in each case.)

      Wittgenstein's view, at least sometimes, seems to be that being ethical means obeying one's conscience, whatever it says. And there is nothing especially rational about doing this.

      Whether either of them is right, of course, is another matter. As is whether we should accept the conceptions of rationality that they use.

    2. Schopenhauer is very explicit in his essay on Ethics that morality is contingent on a state of mind and the early Wittgenstein certainly seems to take a similar view though the states of mind they seem to be thinking about are not quite the same. Schopenhauer argued for a rejection of desires qua attachment (though arguably Wittgenstein lived a somewhat ascetic life that seemed to put THAT into practice). For each there is the sense, as you note, that it is a matter of feeling not arguing. Just as with Moore's intuitionism (we know the good when we see it) so with theirs we can be said to know the good when we feel it (as in being in a certain state of mind -- for Schopenhauer it's to be detached from the Will that underlies all being, for Wittgenstein it seems to be something like "feeling absolutely safe" in what appears to be a transcendental or metaphysical sense).

      I guess my point is that not only do none of these views resolve the matter of how ethics can be explained in a manner that makes ethical judgment what we take it to be (a means for making decisions between different motivations we may find in ourselves) but also that we cannot understand ethics without recognizing that it is fundamentally a rational activity, a process of looking for, and accepting or rejecting, reasons to act in one way rather than another.

      There seems to be more to rational discourse than just articulating some set of rules and expecting people to accept them by following them.

      I do think you are right that this is somewhat to do with THEIR concepts of rationality. Perhaps what's needed then is a broader account, one that covers all the ways we use discursive deliberation both internally and in discourse with others.