Giani DePalma - The Removal of Eudemonism from Ethics

The Removal of Eudemonism from Ethics

 

Giani DePalma

 

 

            Although Arthur Schopenhauer was never able to gain the acclaim during his lifetime of some of the rival post-Kantian philosophers he competed against despite going so far as to schedule lectures at the same time as Hegel, he is now creating more buzz than ever and is widely considered one of the most important German philosophers, as he has earned himself the nickname of “the philosopher of pessimism”.1 Most believe that he was a man before his time, as he wrote during the German classical period where Idealism was the main school of thought. Schopenhauer however went against the grain and believed the world as will to be fundamentally irrational, and held no prisoners when it came to openly criticizing his contemporaries.1 This caused him to be almost brushed aside during his own lifetime, which is made perfectly evident in how his work, On the Basis of Morality was simply turned away by The Danish Academy of Science as it did not line up with their very Kant-centric views.

             Although he didn’t always agree Kant, Schopenhauer did consider himself Kant’s true philosophical heir, and was always full of praise for the man who he claimed, “gave this science (metaphysics) a foundation having definite advantages over previous ones, and because it still remains the last important event to occur in ethics” (47).2 He would use Kant’s foundation of morals as a guide to prepare himself to establish his own foundation.

            It would turn out that he would not be bias in Kant’s favor, but rather attack Schopenhauer would attack Kant’s ethics for being “wholly unjustified, groundless, and fictitious assumptions” (48).2 He replaces Kant’s ethics with his own ethics of compassion, or the ability some human beings have to sympathize with one another on a level beyond consciousness.

            He begins with Kant’s doctrine of the highest good, which Kant supposedly uses to rid his ethics of eudemonism. Schopenhauer however disagrees and says Kant used the doctrine to sneak it back into his ethics through the “back door” (49).2 This means that Kant’s ethics cannot transcend the egoism that it has been attempting to escape all this time, as egoism and eudemonism are connected with each other in almost every way. This is because egoism and eudemonism both have a conscious end and that is attaining happiness, or weal, for the individual performing the act.

            This becomes Schopenhauer’s launching point for his own ethics as he uses compassion as a vehicle to remove eudemonism from his ethics entirely. He believes that true compassion is the desire for another’s own weal, while egoism is the desire for one’s own weal, and because of this egoism is removed, because egoism can not exist between two or more people, it exists only within one person.2

            This is all very real as it can be seen and felt every day, through things as simple as music. If one hears a sad song that conveys emotional suffering, one will find they want to encourage and help the person, not for their own gain, but for that other person’s own well being.

             This being said, many still believe that despite Schopenhauer’s attack on eudemonism and Kant’s unintentional use of it, he himself fell victim to the same trap. Primarily that compassion is actually someone seeking benefit for themselves and their own ego, giving them some sort of holier-than-thou self-gratitude for helping out the less fortunate. They say that in helping someone, even if it doesn’t mean a physical reward it does mean a reward of personal success, therefore negating everything that Schopenhauer’s ethics stand for. So, with all of this being said, do Schopenhauer’s ethics have some sort of eudemonism woven into them?

            I will argue that he is not. To do this I will examine first, the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle who presents the standard form of eudemonistic ethics and then compare them with Schopenhauer whose ideas will contrast with the formers on multiple levels both in his own thoughts and his criticisms of Kant’s work.

            We will first look at Aristotle, as we cannot know what eudemonism is not, if one doesn’t know what it is. Essentially it is the belief that virtue and supreme happiness are synonymous. This supreme happiness is what Aristotle called eudemonia, which he considers the highest end; people do not live for things like health for example as that is a subordinate to eudemonia, and is more of a byproduct to living the good life, rather than the good life itself.3 He deems reason as central to living the good life, as it is what he believes sets human beings apart from all other beings. In order to use one’s reason properly he states that one must be virtuous, and if one can do that it will help him reach the goal of eudemonia. This is the basic thought process behind eudemonism.

            Schopenhauer’s attitude toward eudemonism is taken from the very beginning of On the Basis of Morality, “Kant has the great merit of having purged ethics of all eudemonism. The ethics of the ancients was a doctrine of eudemonism; that of the moderns in the most cases was one of salvation. The ancients tried to prove that virtue and supreme happiness were identical, but these were like two figures that would never coincide, no matter how one might place them” (49).2  

            One element of Kant’s ethics that Schopenhauer attacks is his use of the word “ought,” he argues that the word ought can only be used with any weight when there is some sort of punishment if the person does not do what they “ought” to, rendering it ineffective without the theme of religious salvation, which as he said before was the goal of the ancients with eudemonism, and by refuting this idea he begins his own extermination of eudemonism within his own ethics.          

            Schopenhauer’s ethics revolve around compassion, not reason, which he believes is the only thing that can transcend human egoism. He develops a maxim, “Nemin laede; imo omnes, quantum potes, juva.” (Injure no one; on the contrary help everyone as much as you can) (147). To help explain his definition of compassion in a more simple way.2 He also acknowledges that man rarely acts in this manner by giving the example, “if every individual were given the choice between his own destruction and that of the rest of the world, I need not say how the decision would in the vast majority of cases” (132).2 He bases his idea of compassion, as the ability the “saint” has to directly feel the pain and suffering of another human being as if it were his own. This feeling discusses that individuation’s only existence is phenomenonal, while the suffering that unites all of man is the ultimate reality.

            He uses this to separate a just person from a good person. A just person has the ability to look beyond individuation enough so that they are not the cause of another person’s suffering, while a good person also has this ability they also feel another person’s suffering as their own, and are willing to sacrifice and suffer themselves in order to alleviate the suffering of that person.

            This is where Schopenhauer’s ethics separates itself from any ethical theory with even a subtle hint of eudemonism. Eudemonism focuses on the individual, and that individual’s motives behind performing virtuous acts are performed as an end for his or her own personal happiness. This is of course is clear cut egoism which is exactly what Schopenhauer is attempting to cut out of his own ethics. He explains it in a way that can be applied almost perfectly in relation to eudemonism, “In short, we can put what we like as the ultimate motive of an action, the result will always be that, in some roundabout way, the real incentive is ultimately the doer’s own weal and woe. The action is, therefore, egoistic, and consequently without moral worth. There is only one single case in which this does not take place, namely, when the ultimate motive for doing or omitting to do a thing is precisely and exclusively centered in the weal and woe of someone else, who plays a passive part; thus the man who plays the active part in doing or omitting to do something has in view simply and solely the weal and woe of another; he has absolutely no other object than that the other man will be left unharmed or will even receive help, assistance, and relief. It is this aim alone that gives what is done or left undone the stamp of moral worth” (142-143).2 In other words, if someone were a eudemonist and they saw someone suffering they would have a conscious thought process of, “this is the right thing to do, I should help them”, whereas someone who follows the ethics of compassion would not need to think they would just act based exactly on what they feel. These two separate lines of thought cannot in any way intersect because of that difference, what makes Schopenhauer’s ethics so different is it’s lack of thought.

            Another reason Schopenhauer could not be a eudemonist is his beliefs when it comes to happiness and suffering, while eudemonism’s primary concern is leading a happy life that ultimately breeds a supreme happiness. Being that happiness and suffering are opposite of each other there is no way that eudemonism can embrace suffering in the way that is done by Schopenhauer. Instead it means to avoid suffering, as it is not conducive to living the good life. While Schopenhauer doesn’t endorse suffering he views it as a necessary evil when he says, “Thus pain is something positive that automatically makes itself known; satisfaction and pleasures are negative, the mere elimination of the former. To this due, first of all, the fact that only another’s suffering, want, danger, and helplessness awaken our sympathy directly and as such. The fortunate and contented man as such leaves us indifferent really because his state is negative, namely, an absence of pain, want and distress. It is true that we can take pleasure in the good fortune, well-being, and enjoyment of others; but then this is secondary, brought about by the fact that their suffering and privation had previously distressed us” (146).2 It is like if someone is on a team that never loses, eventually they will lose the ability to enjoy the victory, the same can be said about joy and suffering.

            With all of these things being said it is evident that Schopenhauer cannot be a eudemonist as his ethics differ so greatly with that of classic eudemonist ethics that he could never be considered a eudemonist as their basic views on things such as pain, suffering, happiness, and individualism conflict on the most basic of levels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



1 Troxwell, M. (2011). Schopenhauer, Arthur. In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/schopenh/

 

2 Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans, by EJ.F. Payne (Indian Hills, Colorado : The Falcons Wing Press, 1958), p. 143

 

 

 

3 Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.

 

2 Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans, by EJ.F. Payne (Indian Hills, Colorado : The Falcons Wing Press, 1958), p. xxiii

 

2 Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans, by EJ.F. Payne (Indian Hills, Colorado : The Falcons Wing Press, 1958), p. xxiii

2 Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans, by EJ.F. Payne (Indian Hills, Colorado : The Falcons Wing Press, 1958), p. xxiii

2 Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans, by EJ.F. Payne (Indian Hills, Colorado : The Falcons Wing Press, 1958), p. xxiii