Quotes from Nietzsche

Jan 26, 2015 by

“How could something originate in its antithesis? … The unselfish act in self-interest? … Such origination is impossible; and he who dreams of it is a fool, indeed worse than a fool;  the things of the highest value must have another origin of their own.”  -Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil


For a while now, I have been considering the difference between Natural Law Theory and Relativism.  In short, the basic difference between these two theories is that Natural Law believes that there are Laws to right and wrong action that exist regardless of our desires.  Relativism, on the other hand, holds that the only Laws to right and wrong are ones which we create for ourselves.  Most, if not all, moral theories fall into one of these two categories.  Now, the difference between these two ideas is apparent.  A follower of a natural law theory has a belief in set principles whereas a relativist has principles that are, theoretically, subject to change depending on the circumstances (Such as a change in the values of a society).  Now, another moral question that I have been pondering alongside this is that of the altruistic act,  “The unselfish act”.  Is there such a thing as a truly unselfish act?  Or is it the case that all acts originate in some self-centered motivation?  What Nietzsche is Pointing out here is that even if an act appears unselfish, it may be motivated by self-interest, negating the selflessness of the act.  Thus, if there is such a higher form of action, its motivation cannot be in self-interest, but in the action itself.  This is where the two thoughts draw together.  You see, this is where natural law and relativism must naturally draw a line between each other.  Let us think about their positions and see why this is the case.

For the Relativist, all action is motivated by socially accepted principles, originating in the perceived benefit for the society or individual.  Thus, all moral action comes from self-interest.  If any moral action were to exist not sourced in some self-interest, it would mean that there are moral principles set in stone, not subject to the society you are a part of.  Now, I would like to make a distinction here.  The Relativist won’t claim that there are no universal moral goods.  Rather, the relativist will claim that the universal moral goods that exist, exist because there is no situation in which a society will not see them as beneficial and survive.  Thus, a relativist cannot hold that there are altruistic actions, else he would be admitting that unselfish actions can originate in self-interest.  In other words, if the only moral goods that exist, exist out of self-interest, than no matter how selflessly you follow the moral good, the origin of the action is in self-interest.

On the contrary, you have the Natural Law Theorist.  Now, the natural law theorist must state that at least one moral good exists naturally and objectively.  Not only that, but, if he claims that people can be morally good, that some people can follow this good quite regularly.  Thus, since the natural law theorist claims that there is at least one moral based in objectivity and not self-interest, the natural law theorist must claim that altruistic actions are possible, since following an objective moral principle is not based in self-interest.  Thus, the natural law theorist’s morally good person is following performing actions based on what is right and not what is personally beneficial.  If the person were to follow a principle mostly because it was beneficial, he would cease to be a natural right theorist but become a relativist.  Thus, for the natural right theorist, altruism is necessary.

Thus, a belief in altruism is, or should be, a clear distinction between a natural right theorist and a relativist.  Now, some will try and use this to try and disprove natural right theory by claiming the impossibility of selfless actions.  They claim that, no matter how selfless an action may appear, there is always something taken away.  Sometimes, it may be only the prior knowledge that you will leave a small legacy before you give your life.  However, the problem here lies in the ignorance of the workings of other minds.  You see, even though we can hear from others why they did something, we only can know how pure or corrupt a mind can be based on our own minds.  Only a person who can act selflessly can know that selfless actions are possible.  Yet, if no one can act selflessly, no one can know if selfless actions are possible.  Another further hindrance to understanding the minds of others is a thought that comes after an action.  For instance, I may do something heroic, not thinking about glory or any reward prior to the action.  After the heroic action, I bask in the glory and become full of pride.  Now, by all appearances, my actions was for self-interest.  I did it for the praise and glory.  Yet, because my thought for praise and glory came after the action, my action was altruistic because its origin was in doing what is right.

What do you think?  Are Altruistic actions possible?  Am I wrong and a relativist can act with altruism or a natural right theorist believe altruism impossible?  Is there actually proof for the existence or non-existence of altruistic actions for non-altruistic people?

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.