Classic Essays

Whence and Whither Morality?

Arnold GehlenA tribute to Arnold Gehlen (1904-1976)

SOME SAY MORALITY comes from God. Others say if it doesn’t, it should. As proof they bring up the topic of murder. Who is guiltier? The murderer who kills the image of God or the murderer who kills the aleatory end product of billions of years of natural selection. To the evolutionist, the latter is more of a miracle than the former. To the evolutionist, nature’s trick of turning a DNA molecule into a Shakespeare is more awesome than Yahweh’s abracadabric transformation of a lump of clay into Adam. (ILLUSTRATION: Arnold Gehlen)

But most people — and most murderers — don’t look at it that way. If a man is handed a gun and told to kill either the sophisticated primate known as man or the handiwork of the Almighty, the chances are good he will take a shot at the trousered ape. Even to an unbeliever, killing a creature touched with divinity carries with it dark connotations not just of scores of years in jail, but of thousands of years in hell.

Everything else being equal, a morality sanctioned by religion has the most teeth. Even atheists must agree that when it comes to a specific moral imperative such as the Sixth Commandment, the warnings and fulminations of the pulpiteer have more impact than just plain common sense or just plain instinct.

Just plain instinct! We should not treat the idea so lightly. For this indeed seems to be the source of all ethics, divine or secular, whether pronounced from on high or whispered in the gutter. Morality, as we have been told by the modern school of ethology (with assists from Spencer, Nietzsche and a few other nineteenth century sages), is largely the internal codification, hypostatization and unleashing of complexes of instincts, sometimes warring instincts, which over thousands of centuries have proved to have survival value for man and beast.

The Two Codes

Herbert Spencer, who lured Darwinism up the dark byways of social science, harped on the codes of amity and enmity. The one insured family solidarity by stressing maternal and filial love, sociality, charity, succor, reciprocity — all the household virtues which could easily be extended into the tribe and patriarchal and feudal societies. The other, the code of enmity, took the cementing love of the family and tribe, the love of the near, and transformed it into the hatred of the far, into animosity for the stranger and the outsider, into the kind of emotional state that triggers killing and mass murder — and honor and sacrifice and obedience among the killers. Here all was bias against instead of bias for. Here was the wellspring of intolerance and the seed of slavery, the taboos against miscegenation, the innate disdain for the foreigner and all his works — a total physical and cultural cold shoulder.

Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer

There was something quite moral, quite “Christian,” about the code of amity: love of kin, love of neighbor, respect for life, care for the sick and wounded — all the motives of social cooperation which injected teamwork and team spirit in the hunting band. Conversely, there was something very immoral about the code of enmity. With its accent on violence against the intruder, it permitted and encouraged acts which, if committed within the group, would have been condemned as heinous crimes.

Philosophers, preachers and the literati have always been aware of these polarized sets of behavior, often oversimplifying and perverting them into a Jekyl-and-Hyde “split personality.” To sharpen the dichotomy, while at the same time confirming it, behavior patterns were moralized into virtues and vices, the former being credited to God, the latter debited to the Devil. The instinctual basis was sometimes recognized, but seldom elaborated. Today, when the gene has become as much a part of Western physiology as the blood cell, the truth is still not coming out.

Farmers and nomadic tribesmen have known for millennia that animals can be bred for temperament. Aggression can be bred into bulls, murder into roosters. If one had the time and inclination, it would only take a dozen or so generations to breed killer doves. Since such dispositions have moral connotations in man, it follows that morality can be bred into humans — a fact that is shattering to theologians, including those of the Marxist persuasion.

The idea has been given some attention of late by the founders of ethology, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Irenaus EiblEibesfeldt, who have now demonstrated that even the most complicated behavior of birds and mammals is likely to be the exclusive product of inheritance. On the basis of these findings, who can deny that morality may soon become a science, as recommended by Raymond Cattell?

Niko Tinbergen (left) and Konrad Lorenz
Niko Tinbergen (left) and Konrad Lorenz

 Gehlen’s Contribution

Early in this century the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson, who had succeeded in corrupting Darwin’s theory with the elan vital and other metaphysical absurdities, decided there were two sources of morality. One source was the family or tribe (here he agreed with Spencer). The other was humanitarianism ­consisting of brotherly love (for all men), equalitarianism and the kind of sentimental liberalism found in the Declaration of Independence, the UNESCO statements on human rights, the editorial pages of the New York Times and the “news” columns of Time. Bergson, needless to say, considered the expansion of the family ethic into humanitarianism as “progress.”

Arnold Gehlen, one of the few social scientists worthy of the name, thinks differently. In his important work Moral und Hypermoral Gehlen presents an almost irrefutable case that humanitarianism is not progress, that it is not an extension of the family ethic, but a hideous perversion of it — a vampire bat that flits about in the garb of a peacock.

The perversion, Gehlen writes, first became a world menace after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors, having cut up the short-lived Macedonian empire, were struggling for bigger and bigger hunks of the pie. The code of amity was no longer relevant because the family had been deep-sixed and the tribal system half obliterated by artificial states forcibly implanted into a helter skelter of incompatible races and cultures. In desperation the kings and generals ordered their wise men, eggheads and rhetoricians to come up with an ideology that would prevent their motley subjects from flying at each other’s throats ­ and at the throats of their rulers. Since the Cynic and Stoic philosophers who headed up the project were mostly Near Easterners, anti-Greek in spirit and congenitally hostile to the Macedonian militarists, it did not take them long to devise a leveling regimen that soon dampened and eventually extinguished the racial verve of the Greek soldiers who had made Alexander’s conquests possible.

Henri Bergson
Henri Bergson

In this early outburst of rampant equalitarianism, a serious endeavor was made to turn large segments of the human race into one family. Everyone was equal to everyone. Maternal love was “enlarged” into international altruism. Hatred was no longer reserved for the foreigner but for the citizen who refused to accept the new order. Responsibility for one’s acts, even one’s thoughts, was no longer invested in the individual, the family and the kinship group, but in the tyrant.

The mise-en-scène was that of a peaceful herd enjoying a blissful existence under the guidance of a benevolent shepherd, an Arcadian image that has cropped up time and again in history — in pastoral poetry and the Golden Age, in myths about the Noble Savage, in the works of sundry utopians, in the social contract of Rousseau and in the lunatic fringe of today’s conservationists.

The distortion of the family ethic into a worldwide moral absolutism has served as the ethical basis of various attempts at universal empire from the temporal popes of the Middle Ages to the One World concept of today. Unsurprisingly, humanitarianism has turned out to be more of a problem maker than a problem solver. Leaving no place for the natural outlet of aggressive instincts, it turns aggression inward against the state and against the family itself. In a humanitarian world, where all men are brothers and war is outmoded or “impossible,” violence breaks out in the most unlikely places. The media, for example, grow rabid, as TV wallows deeper in blood. Paradoxically, the enemy is now the man who still clings most tenaciously to the old family and tribal ethic, from which humanitarianism sprung. Called a racist, a reactionary, a social misfit, his affections still directed toward his real rather nominal brother, he must be silenced.

The Heart’s Civil War

The tragedy is that all these frustrations and anomalies set up furious and destructive moral conflicts in the same heart. This is often an insupportable psychological load for the descendants of humans whose survival for hundreds of thousands of years has been predicated on not doing unto others as they would have others do unto them. The principal victims of this internal psychological warfare have been women. Their instinctual love for children and biological urge for the preservation of life, family and home have made it possible for them to be mesmerized en masse by humanitarian appeals to love for all children, all life, all families and all homes. In addition to those who stand to gain directly by the weakening of our mental and physical fiber, the chief architects of this moral realignment are liberal clergymen. Who is better equipped to promote humanitarianism than those who have been fighting the family ethic for the last two thousand years? It is not much of a leap from the New Testament’s disparagement of domestic unity and loyalty (Matthew: 10,35) to the surrender of one’s household, one’s neighborhood, one’s nation and one’s people.

Humanitarianism, Gehlen prophesies, cannot possibly work because it applies tribal ethics to vast agglomerates of nations and peoples. What is not accepted naturally and voluntarily can only be imposed by force. Consequently, once the liberal tyrants are overthrown, the different population groups will throw off the totalitarian juggernaut of humanitarianism, revert to the family ethic and rebuild their lives and their cultures accordingly.

Since the main goal of present day humanitarianism is to share the fruits of the labor and creativity of the more prosperous peoples of the world with the less prosperous, we may expect it to come to an end when so much has been taken from the former that they are no better off than the latter.

Gehlen is at his best when he describes a principal component of humanitarianism as Massenslebenswert, a word he borrowed from Max Weber — and a polysyllabic German monstrosity which he goodnaturedly admits would have sent Mark Twain into a fit of belly laughs. What it really means is the right of the masses to enjoy a high standard of living, an ideal unknown before the industrial revolution. Today in the West this right has become a moral canon, with political implications that are not difficult to comprehend. At this stage of history a politician who does not stand for the higher wages, increased services and bigger welfare and retirement benefits which will permit everyone to enjoy “the good life,” is considered immoral. Yet at the same time it is becoming immoral to pollute the environment. Only the most hypocritical politician can escape being gored by the horns of this dilemma.

Gehlen provides many more examples of the moral hypertrophy that now goes hand in hand with humanitarianism and the distortion of family and tribal ethics. He points out the paradox that the more we become ensnared in a universal morality, the faster the individual’s personal morality withers on the vine. And as our morals dry up, we unconsciously assume less responsibility for our actions, while demanding that the government assume more. Having ourselves become moral monsters, we yield our moral prerogatives to the state. As the state then goes about forcing people to accept a morality abhorrent to both nature and evolution, government takes on a new and elaborate set of functions, including those of a nursemaid. “Leviathan,” as Gehlen puts it, “acquires more and more of the characteristics of a milk cow.”

Arnold Gehlen died six months ago in Hamburg. Not one page of his work has as yet appeared in English, though his books have been printed by the tens of thousands in West Germany and have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Czech. A well-written English translation of Moral und Hypermoral has been rejected by almost all the important university presses in the United States. But timeless ideas have the habit of conquering temporality.

Liberal-minority censors may have temporarily put the quietus on him in America, but his remarkable contributions to sociology and to the exciting new field of philosophical anthropology, which he helped originate, are alive and kicking elsewhere.

* * *

Source: Instauration magazine, August 1976

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gehlen is still quite rare in English translation, but his Man: His Nature and Place in the World and Man in the Age of Technology are available — at extremely steep prices.

For Further Reading

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