Morality, Conscience and the Move Towards Self-Benevolence

It is a traditional idea that self-interest and benevolence or an interest in others are incompatible. Nietzsche believed this, and other philosophers, such as Aquinas, gave hints in this direction. Nietzsche was as strong-viewed as to say that one can only act in self-interest or benevolence without the other being weakened; others merely said that an action cannot be both.

I believe in the possibility of a middle-ground, the way to act for the benefit of others over one’s self whilst still promoting Nietzsche’s ‘free will’: self-benevolence. It has been brought up as a question that no good deed is done without any self-interest, even if the self-interest is only that emotionally receipt of knowing one has done good. I agree; we are humans and every action must have a reaction; we are inclined to feel emotion for most things that happen around us, even in the most indirect of ways (superstorm Sandy made us sympathetic; a friend in trouble makes us just as worried).

Although I unwisely choose a misnomer, self-benevolence is a term for the act of doing good for a motive of wanting to achieve good – whilst also not ignoring the motives of emotion that we possess. At simplest, compassion comes from giving money to charity. This act is not bad because we have done something through emotion. In a way, nor is a ‘good’ act, but a neutral one (though, this takes the theoretics a little too far for the moment).

Looking at self-benevolence in a more complex situation, we see the external motives of wanting to raise money for a charity, to help those who are lesser-off, but we also come across the internal, indirect motives of the attention it will give, the rewards one might receive in return. In traditional theology, humanity is supposed to give with no want to get, but it would be self-deceit to assume that these emotions do not occur.

Does this make the action immoral? I say no to that. I am not a deontologist, in that only the action itself – or only the consequences – should be judged with a moral eye, but neither do I think that motive alone is what makes an action ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Some people make mistakes in their judgment; some people are evil for a reason. I am not supplying the latter with a way into moral immunity simply because they have a good reason for their actions (the Pharisees were convinced that Jesus was a threat to their power), but a moral judge must look beyond one element and into the internal and external causes of an occurrence.

As for the conscience, it must be a pretty accurate guide as to decision-making. Not infallible, I stress, but often better than acting through impulse or from over-thinking. If the conscience is the inspirational mix of mind and soul, it may be God-given, it may be a creation of humanity alone, it may be something else entirely, such as an extraterrestrial possession. Whatever it is, the conscience is not the be-all and end-all of decisions, but it is not to be ignored if one cannot think of the best way to approach a problem either.

Whilst at times I think dogmatism might be a useful tool to compile a theory with, there is no use in forcing people to abandon the morality they know. In addition, although Nietzsche is not immoral, he forgets that a large percentage of society still relies on the traditional view that good deeds lead to a good heart (and, for theists, the reward of Heaven). Indeed, I don’t suggest we compile an equal sense of morality throughout the entire world, for cultures will innately contradict the specifics of morals (for instance, the case of tribal women throwing themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyre).  There is, though, no problem with being of the common morality; since we each have an individual personality, we will interpret this morality differently. And, if anyone hoped not to live amongst ‘the herd’, they could easily apply principles to their own society!

As for my own concept, I hope to act in an absolute manner, but I do not criticise those who follow theories of relativism and situationalism. Even Natural Law depends on a certain  interpretation of secondary principles.

The End

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