Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 3 Ethics

Post Modernism  Existentialism


During the Twentieth Century the advanced technological societies of the West and some in the East experienced a decline in the number of people who practiced their religion regularly and accepted a morality based upon Natural Law Theory.  There was a decline in the belief that:

1.         there is a single reality and that humans can have knowledge of it.

2.         there is objective truth

3.         there are absolutes 

This decline can be attributed to a number of factors:

1.         the increase in information about other cultures and their various practices, beliefs and values,

2.         advances in what science and technology could provide for humans in improvements in their basic living along with an appreciation for material goods,

3.         the spreading influence of ideas from the existentialist and pragmatist movements

4.         the spread of democratic ideals 

In the Post Modern view there are no absolutes of any kind and there are no universal truths nor universal criteria for beauty and nor are there universal principles of the GOOD.  Thus, there is a return of relativism in the sphere of morality.  With that return there is also the threat of chaos which relativism spawns.  As reaction to this trend there is an increase in the numbers of people returning to religion and religious principles as the foundation for their moral lives.  The fastest growing religion in the world is Islam.  Islam is increasing in its population through a birth rate higher than average and through conversions.  Islam fundamentalism is growing in the number of adherents.  Fundamentalists of Islam and of Christianity and Judaism are all declaring their condemnation of the current state of moral decline and the rise of relativism and materialism. 

In moral theory there has developed a number of traditions that extol alternatives to the teleological and deontological approaches based upon reason and the belief that universal principles can be reached through the exercise of reason.  

The Existentialists called for an acceptance of the inescapable role of human emotions. 

The Pragmatists focused on the impossibility of reason reaching beyond the frailties of limitations of human reason. 

Feminist theoreticians have devised a number of approaches to ethics that have at least this much in common: the denial of previous theories as being biased and deluded.


Existentialism                  Existential Ethics


Nietzsche on Master and Slave Morality

Nietzsche and Morality: The Higher Man and The Herd



Omonia Vinieris (QCC,  2002)     Nietzsche’s Will to Power

            Nietzsche’s ethical principle of the will to power makes a claim to the egoistic nature of humanity.  The doctrine asserts that all humans strive to forcibly impose their will upon others as a primal drive in their nature compels them to do so.  Man will relentlessly exercise his will over others as an example of his determination, spirit, and strength of character.  To demonstrate and acquire his power and influence is his inherent motivation to act, even if his actions essentially seem unselfishly provoked.  Nietzsche alleges that no true altruistic deeds exist because humans are wholly egocentric and self-seeking by nature.  We may give the impression that we are considerate, caring, and selfless as we may perform kind deeds for others that regard us as humane, but our innate intensions are truly self-absorbed and do not entail goodness or benevolence.  By this, Nietzsche does not suggest by any means that mankind is innately malicious out of its deceptive intentions, but rather that it is more rapt in its own aspirations or purposes of life.  These aspirations are to be esteemed as an example of human prominence and not mistaken for the malice and deterioration of mankind.

            Conversely, sympathy, generosity, and equality are all qualities that one associates with good moral character, not with contemptibility as Nietzsche does.  The noble spirit that Nietzsche speaks of would not embrace these traditional ethical traits.  To manipulate characters of fragility and frailty, to indulge in one’s supremacy, and to pamper one’s self with praise, are preferably what Nietzsche considers to be the intrinsic and admirable traits of the good.  Traditional ethicists revile these characteristics and see them as they may prompt the decaying of civilization.  Nevertheless, Nietzsche merely suggests that it is instinctive of humans to inflict their will to power.  Analogously, the Darwinist theory of evolution verifies such a claim as it is the survival of the fittest that determines what species endures and what species ceases to exist.  The fittest in accordance to Nietzsche’s ethical principles are the good and those who strive to dominate over inferior beings.  Perhaps this is precisely why many conventional ethicists would refute Nietzsche’s will to power.  It is evident that the fundamental institution of morals into society is to impede many of our natural propensities in order to avert the chaotic unruliness that may arise from them.

            Nietzsche distinguishes between noble (masters) and base (slaves) souls.  The concept of a noble soul originates from Nietzsche’s admiration of ancient Greek culture.  The ancient Greeks were an animated people who paradoxically welcomed the inevitability of death, facing the ordeals and hardships of life, whilst celebrating its magnificence.  The noble soul or master, according to Nietzsche, is a replica of the ancient Greek.  He grows comfortably amidst the suffering and toils of human pain as he confronts life.  This confrontation is natural and only drives him to grow and acquire more.  He may have to exploit the base soul for his own good, but this maltreatment of another being only supplements his pride and his will to power.  In this sense, affliction provides the master with the prospect of extensive growth, and does not hinder his path to power.

            On the contrary, the base spirit or slave trembles in the face of affliction.  He does not challenge the hardships of life, but rather seeks to assuage the pain which he finds intolerable.  Such a being seeks out consolation from others out of his apprehension and despicability.  He considers sympathy, benevolence, and equality to be the essential attributes of goodness because they falsely detract from the injustice and agony of life.  The slaves are inferior to the master in that they do not anticipate growing in a torturous, pain-inflicted world.  Nietzsche considers this base soul to represent the greater part of humanity today.  Thus, his ethical principle of the noble’s will to power over the base epitomizes a complete avant-garde reversal of the nature of bad and good in traditional ethical thought.


Nietzsche’s anti Ethics 

Powerpoint Overview of his position:

from Stephen Darwall,  University of Michigan ( )

Nietzsche submits this idea of morality to radical critique.  He believes both that the idea is philosophically insupportable and that when we understand its genealogy, we will see that what actually explains our having it are profoundly negative aspects of human life.  Morality is an ideology.  We can believe it only if we ignore why we do.  Central to Nietzsche’s thought is a fundamental distinction between the ideas of good and bad, on the one hand, and those of (moral) good and evil, on the other.  (Notice the title of Essay I.) The natural form ethical evaluation first takes, he believes is that of excellence or merit.  People who excel, who have merits we admire and esteem, thereby have a kind of natural nobility. 

A.  These are “rank-ordering, rank-defining value judgments.” 

We naturally look up to, we respect and esteem, those with merit.  He calls them “knightly aristocratic values”

B. The “primary” half of the pair is good.  Bad is what is not-good.  What is not worthy of esteem and respect.

C. The “good” features are naturally “positive”:  they affirm and sustain life, vigor, strength, etc., e.g. openness, cheerfulness, creativity, physical strength, agility, grace, beauty, vigor, health, wit, intelligence, charm, and friendliness. 

On the other hand, the “primary” half of the good/evil pair is evil.  The idea of evil is reactive.  It comes from the negation of good.  Indeed, Nietzsche believes that it derives from negating good (natural merit).  And the idea of  moral good is simply the negation of that negation.  It is what is not evil.   The original negation is due to resentment—a psychological process  through which the naturally weak suppress their anger at being slighted by  the strong who consider them of little merit.  Unable to express their anger honestly, they suppress it to an unconscious level, in the “dark workshop” of the human psyche.  It then comes to be expressed not as personal anger, but in an alienated, impersonal form, namely, as moral indignation and resentment.  The strong who disrespect the weak are seen, by virtue of their disrespect, as deserving moral disapproval—as being evil.  

We can see how this process is supposed to work in Nietzsche’s parable of  the lambs and the birds of prey .  The birds see the lambs as their  natural inferiors, as meat.  The lambs are angered by this, but can’t do  anything about it directly by expressing personal anger.  So they express their anger in an impersonal way.  They reproach the birds; they hold them morally responsible for what they lambs see as their evil conduct.  They project the ideology of morality, which is just the impersonal expression of their personal anger and hatred.  Nietzsche is saying that morality is born in denial. 

The problem from Nietzsche’s perspective is that, unlike the birds of prey, the naturally strong have been taken in by this ideology.  Through Judaeo-Christian religion, a “priestly caste” has taken over culture to such a degree that the ideology of morality is now the dominant view.  But in addition to being born in hatred and denial, Nietzsche believes both that the idea of morality is philosophically insupportable (for example, in its assumption of free will) as well as one that has terrible consequences for human culture—it is an ethic of weakness and illness that chokes off genuine human achievement.  


The Ethics of an Immoralist




a.      Some people feel that the will to power advocated by Nietzsche encourages people to be callous and cruel, ignoring humanity for the sake of gaining power.

b.      Theists argue that it is not the individual who obtains power according to to them; power is something dished out by God.  It is not up to man as to whether or not he will be powerful.  Additionally, God gives rewards for following His ways, not as a result of a power struggle.

c.      Theists can also argue that the will to power can be seen as merely a response to helplessness, as Nietzsche's method for wishing to attain control of a life that is really left up to God.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents