Irreconcilable flaws in Schopenhauer’s theory of Morality

Posted by on July 9, 2011

The search for a solid foundation for morality is one that many philosophers have participated in; Schopenhauer is simply one of them.   His theory, from On the Basis of Morality, states that compassion is the genuine incentive and therefore foundational for morality.   Schopenhauer states that compassion arises from human beings having inevitably first committed an injustice that leads to an experience of suffering, which in the end leads towards compassion.  In this paper I will not be focusing on presenting all the steps of how Schopenhauer reaches this conclusion.  Rather, I will charitably accept his conclusion to be true, and in doing so illustrate the truths he presents about moral character to be prejudiced and contradictory towards a morality driven by compassion.

In Section 19, one of the arguments that Schopenhauer makes for compassion being foundational for morality is “that the animals are also taken under its protection” (OBM 175).  On the same page he mentions that European systems of morality are severely lacking in this regard, and he especially blames Judaism for this.  He further goes on to state how more modern languages have words distinguishing the same acts of eating or drinking that animals and humans partake in.  He mentions how this separation is not apparent in ancient language and thus states it to be a “work of European priests and parsons” (OBM 176).  Schopenhauer’s prejudice becomes even more vivid when he argues for animal rights by first stating that:

One must be really quite blind or totally chloroformed by the [Judaic odor] not to recognize that the essential and principal thing in the animal and the man is the same, and that what distinguishes the one from the other is not to be found in the primary and original principle, in the archaeus… (OBM 178)

Another instance of anti-Semitic prejudice is seen when he states towards the end that “we see that all ages and countries have clearly recognized the source of morality; Europe alone has not, and for this only the [Judaic odor] is to blame, for it pervades everything” (OBM 187).  Both of these quotations demonstrate the deep prejudices present in Schopenhauer’s writing.

The above-mentioned quotations are alarming bells for and foreshadow a bigoted view of morality that considers certain people to constitute higher morality while others may be inferior; thereby contributing towards people’s struggles with injustice, discrimination, and hatred.  There is an obvious contradiction between such expressions of prejudice and Schopenhauer’s theory of compassion as foundational for morality.  Compassion should not lead to a moral character that finds any human being to be repugnant, because at some point everyone has experienced some type of prejudice or suffering.  Since an experience of suffering leads to compassion, and compassion leads to moral actions, Schopenhauer as the author of this morality is contradicting his theory by expressing hatred towards Jews by calling their existence an odor.

In section 20, Schopenhauer shamelessly presents this theory of moral character by stating that “the difference of characters [in people] is innate and ineradicable” (OBM 187).  He further goes on to state that those born with a bad moral character will express that character while those born good will express good.  Therefore, strata of morally good characters and bad characters in society become obvious consequences of his theory.  It is clear from his writings that he finds Jews to constitute bad moral character due to their cruelty towards animals.  Bad moral character is inferior to good moral character.  The cruelty towards animals by certain human beings was committed due to an inferred inferiority of the animals compared to human beings.  Therefore, by the same logic that Schopenhauer applies towards animals, similar cruelty is an obvious consequent towards the Jews or any other community or individual that is considered to constitute bad moral character, consequently being an inferior community or individual.  If this problem is to be avoided then it must be done as Schopenhauer states in his defense of the animals, such that the essential and principal thing must be recognized in all human beings.  A theory that postulates compassion to be the foundation of morality cannot also present prejudices about individuals or communities by introducing differences that automatically emphasize inferiority.

Another example of Schopenhauer’s contradictions is his discussion about the virtue of justice and his statements regarding women, compassion, and justice.  In regards to the virtue, he claims justice to arise from compassion when he states “there arises from this first degree of compassion the maxim, [injure no one], i.e., the fundamental principle of justice” (OBM 147).  He then comments a while later “here too is to be found the reason why women are as a rule inferior to men in the virtue of justice, and thus of uprightness and conscientiousness” (OBM 151).  He claims on the same page that women are capable of far more compassion than men, yet “the very thought of seeing women administer justice raises a laugh” (OBM 157).  If compassion is meant to lead towards justice and women by nature have the most compassion, should not women be superior in the virtue of justice according to Schopenhauer’s logic? Yet, women and justice jointly are laughable ideas.  Again, Schopenhauer’s theory about compassion fails because how can a compassionate being/theory consider another being as inferior?  Schopenhauer’s affinity towards Hindu, Brahman ideology, almost leads me to think from this passage that he would have liked the Laws of Manu which state that it is okay to beat women like one’s own dog.  He is willing to defend animal rights and almost consider them equal to man, yet he degrades the human capability of women based on nothing but prejudice and considers them inferior.

Schopenhauer attempts to very weakly reconcile with these issues.  His attempt at reconciliation is seen when he describes the morally good character to be he who “makes less of a distinction than do the rest between himself and others” (204).  Schopenhauer attempts to cover the prejudice apparent in his morality by stating look good people don’t see a difference between themselves and others, while bad people consequently are the ones that make the greatest distinctions.  Again, there is an obvious contradiction here.  To become a good moral character one must eliminate the distinction between oneself and others, yet Schopenhauer states that the truth about moral characters is that there are people that are inherently born with bad characters and good characters.  Then, to be a good moral character, one must reject the same reality that Schopenhauer states exists.  One must realistically eliminate the distinction in one of three ways: think that everyone is essentially good, everyone is essentially bad, or that there is no good or bad.  Considering that Schopenhauer continually expresses an affinity towards Eastern thought, my educated guess would be that Schopenhauer prefers the third viewpoint.  But, he states explicitly that moral characters are innate and that a wicked person “is as little able to change his character as the serpent its fangs” (OBM 187).  Where there are good and bad characters, there exists good and bad.  No matter which option he uses to eliminate the distinction, there is an obvious contradiction present.

By accepting Schopenhauer’s theory about compassion being the foundation of morality as true, I have exposed the inherently prejudicial and contradictory problems within his theory of morality.  The overriding problem that can be seen from all of the examples is that Schopenhauer refuses to recognize the essential same thing present in all human beings.  Developmentally the brain is the same in all humans, and all humans have the same faculties of reason and capabilities of emotion.  Consequently, the same potential for morality is present in all human beings.  By neglecting this and by placing levels of superiority and inferiority on moral character, he is committing the same error that he blames on the priests and Jews.  Their philosophies lead to cruelty towards animals, accepting Schopenhauer’s has the possibility of cruelty towards humans.

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