"Morality is the refuge of the "Morality is the refuge of the weak." Discuss.

It seems to me that there are in fact two interconnected but distinct questions embedded in this one assertion. It seems to be asking both 'Is morality's function to protect the weak?' as Callicles asserts in Plato's Gorgias, and also 'Are we only moral because we are weak?', which is the standard interpretation of Nietzsche's writings. I do not however think that this dual track question is the result of ambiguity. I think that to adequately answer either divided question, one must at least make a foray into the realm of the other, and a definite answer to one would seem to answer the other as well. I intend to show in this essay why I do not think that morality is any form of refuge, and has nothing to do with strength or weakness. In fact, I think we are very limited in how we are able to alter our morality. Most of it is outside our control. One question we must ask before we continue is what the opposite of weak is in the context of these questions. The obvious answer is 'strong', but we must ask strong in what manner. I think that perhaps the criterion we are looking for for the first question is something akin to 'successful', an individual who is doing well for themselves, but not just out of chance. For the second question, moral strength, or strength of character seems to be what is being referred to. I shall however continue to use the term 'strong', as it is less unwieldy.

To begin with, I shall respond to the first assertion, that morality is used to defend the weak from the strong. This implies that morality is a creation of the weak, wielded to keep the strong in line. Without morality, the strong would do as they wished, and would rule over the weaker elements. However, if we are saying that the weak are using morality to keep the strong in line, is this not saying that they are holding them under their power. If this is so, then the weak are actually not weak, for having control of others is surely a sign of strength. In that case morality is just another tool of manipulation that individuals use on each other to gain more power. This idea seems to hold true if morality was deliberately invented by humans as a means to control other humans, but it is also true if morality developed without deliberate encouragement, as it would just be a case of individuals utilising a 'natural' phenomenon for their own ends, yet another kind of strength. It therefore seems that morality is not utilised by the weak, as if it was, they would not be weak any more. However, with a slight reformulating of emphasis in the question I shall proceed to examine whether morality does in fact protect the weaker elements anyway.

Morality is there to tell us which acts are right and which wrong. In order for morality to be said to protect the weak, it should be part of morality that exploiting the weak is wrong. This does seem to be present in some moralities, that utilising your position of power to take from others is morally frowned upon, even if it goes on all the time around us as economics dictates that the best business is the one that lowers cost whilst raising prices, effectively squeezing more money out of both sides of the equation. It seems that whilst scorning this action as morally wrong, we recognise it as the 'best' way to conduct business. There may well be those who would say that business as a whole is inherently wrong, but that is dividing up the moralities, and it is not the concern of this essay to examine individual moralities. On an individual basis, it would seem that morality does indeed try to protect the weak, particularly our Judaeo-Christian derived system, that tells us to look after those below us as much as we can.

This leaves us in an interesting position, in that morality does seem to protect those who are weak, but it also protects others, who cannot be called weak since they are in fact using morality to protect themselves, manipulating other individuals by doing so. One could argue that by using morality as a tool, these people are in fact not being moral, but this section of the question is not concerned with being moral, only with morality as a system and what functions it fulfils. It seems like a sign of human strength that we are able to utilise something like morality that to protects the weak as a shield for some who are strong as well.

I shall now move on to the question of whether or not morality is only followed by those who are weak. As I mentioned before, this is the standard interpretation of Nietzsche, that the herd are moral because they are too weak to break out of the mould, but there are a few Ubermensch who can become masters by shedding the fetters of this morality. Nietzsche claims that the Judaeo-Christian tradition of humility and caring for your neighbour cripples us, that those who are capable of it should leave this morality behind and impose our own wishes upon those around us, take what we want. One problem with this, particularly in relation to this question, is that he does propose a master morality that one should aim for when one is rising from the slave morality. Thus, if we return to the main assertion that morality is weakness, then Nietzsche's Ubermensch would still be weak. This is an often noted flaw in Nietzsche, that despite calling for individuals to make their own choices, formulate their own moral code, he also gives a list of desirable actions and attributes that would fit into his master morality. This seems a difficult obstacle to overcome, but it can be bypassed in two steps. Firstly we must take Nietzsche's proposed morality as a paradigm, not a requirement, his typical example. Secondly, we must decide whether a moral code unique to one individual can in fact be classed as a true morality. Many would say that morality is a systematisation of how people should interact, and interaction can only take place if there is more than one individual. It therefore seems that a true morality must be held by at least two individuals, or, preferably, a social group, whereas Nietzsche would allow the possibility that only one Ubermensch was present at any one time, and that he would therefore have a unique morality for that time period. Alternatively, one can just take 'morality' in the context of the question to mean the conventional morality, i.e. our own current morality, but that seems inadequate as it is too fluid.

Nietzsche's idea of master morality, which he regards as a more efficient version, is one of cruelty, use of power for selfish ends, and disregard for the herd, or "worms" as he terms them. It takes a strong individual to resist the onset of slave mentality, and to recognise that one can in fact break out from the rest of the herd and rule over them. To create a new and highly antagonistic moral system in the midst of a morality designed to suppress such individuality would certainly take a feat of strength, but this is not quite the question asked. We must consider whether individuals who have the strength to break free of the 'slave morality' always do so, and if any don't why not. One could quite easily imagine a strong individual deciding that it would be beneficial for him to remain within the herd, perhaps in order to continue receiving their help, and thus being moral not purely because he was weak. There is no benefit in altering your morality in itself, only if it is beneficial for yourself. This would of course depend on whether you see morality as motivation based or action based, as obviously someone continuing to appear moral in order to receive society's aid is not moral in motivation.

Another question we must ask is whether it is in fact possible to have no morality at all. This would have serious implications for the question if we were not to assume it meant conventional morality. It seems that since a morality is a system that tells you what actions are right and wrong, and thus helps to guide your life, we should have one, even if it is, like Nietzsche's master morality, completely opposed to those around us. One possible counterexample is that of an amoral individual, say someone who has not ever been taught any ethical code. However, I would say that this person would still have a morality, one that tells them which actions are right and which wrong. It would almost certainly be one founded on self interest, as in this action is right because it has a reward for me, and this action is wrong because it has a detrimental effect on me. Therefore, I do not see that an individual can exist without a morality, however alien it might be to us. Therefore all individuals have morality, and it is impossible to escape from it. We must therefore direct the question towards conventional morality, which does give us a somewhat shaky foundation, but it is the only one that is coherent.

Plato also addresses the question of morality in a manner that is directly applicable to this question. For Plato, we should be good because it is in our own interests. At its most base level, his reasoning can be seen as saying that society will sanction those who do not adhere to morality, and that it is therefore in your interests not to be immoral, as that would lead to your being sanctioned. This egoistic account of morality does not admit talk of strength or weakness, since it simply doesn't count as a factor in reasons to be moral or not for Plato. The manner in which Plato attempts to give an account of morality is the interesting factor, not his account itself. He encourages us to be moral, to follow the rules of our society, whatever they may be. He doesn't talk of what is right and wrong, but rather of the results of doing right and wrong. The way he expresses all this is that it is in our own interest to do the right thing, since if we do wrong, our soul will trouble us at the very least.

There is however an element of strength required for some of Plato's moral philosophy. For Plato, the accumulation of wisdom is the best action, the accumulation of sensation the worst. He also sees several different levels of knowledge, as described by his allegory of the Line in the Republic. For Plato therefore, the best action is the contemplation of the Forms, and above all others the Form of the Good. From this we would gain knowledge and understanding of what is good, and could thus become more morally virtuous. He seems to admit though that the contemplation of the Forms is difficult in itself, and that the contemplation of the Good is almost impossible, he likens it to staring at the sun. Thus, he seems to be saying that humans are not strong enough to ever attain this full understanding of morality, but that by trying we do improve ourselves. If one was being critical one could therefore say that we must utilise our current morality because we are too weak to improve it to one closer to the Good, and thus are only moral because we are weak, but it doesn't seem to me that that would be a refuge. As long as contemplation of the Good continues, and Plato believes that it should, we would not be taking refuge.

It seems to me then that both of these schools of thought admit the possibility that we are only moral because we are weak, but not that morality is there to protect the weaker elements of society. However, I do not agree that morality is a sign of weakness. My view of morality is as something that is external to us, in some ways imposed upon us, not something we are truly at liberty to choose about. I see morality as something that enables societies to function more efficiently by promoting co-operation. Like Hobbes, I see a state without morality as one where little gets done due to a lack of trust, and therefore a lack of co-operation. In order for us to be able to co-operate, we create a form of morality that discourages betrayal and injustice, allowing us to contribute to the whole without fear of being taken advantage of. This is of course the ideal morality, and an initial morality would not fulfil this function well. I therefore also see a driving mechanism that promotes changes in morality, that is survival. If one views societies as composite entities, then one can apply evolutionary theories to them. The most basic one is all that is needed to demonstrate the analogy. If we agree with the principal of survival of the fittest, then that society which functions best will be more likely to survive than that in which internal conflict is rife. Obviously evolution cannot be fully applied in its traditional sense because societies do not reproduce, but if one sees the generations within a society as the carriers, then that is the reproductive change system. Thus, the best society is one in which every individual within it contributes as much as possible to the whole, but must also perpetuate themselves, in order to serve the society. An individual would work for the whole because the whole would also work for them, as a society is an advantage over individuals. Thus morality would actually be a creation of strength, not weakness.

However, one could suggest that the individuals who follow morality only do so because they are too weak to exist without the society. There now follows what will probably be a fairly fundamental split. You can either see it as practicality or weakness that leads to individuals clinging to society. This is akin to the pessimist / realist distinction, and seems to come down to personal opinion. I would however say that an individual outside a society would never be able to protect themselves from an attack of any sort by a society, and thus I would lean towards the realist description.


B. Williams, Morality (Cambridge: Canto, 1997) A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1996) Plato, Five Dialogues (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981) Plato, The Republic (St Ives: Penguin, 1987) F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra T. Hobbes, Leviathan (Online Version) Plato, Gorgias (Online Version)

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On 24 Mar 2002, 23:49.