Schopenhauer’s ethics builds off of Kant’s distinction of the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, and their counterparts in the individual, the intelligible and empirical character, while at the same time effectively refuting the Categorical Imperative as a tenable ethical principle. He instead makes the convincing argument that compassion is the true basis of morality, for all sentient beings, human or otherwise.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy is impossible without Immanuel Kant’s. Building off of his metaphysics, Kant bases the possibility of his moral system on our “supra-sensible dimension to our conative natures” (Young 202). The supra-sensible dimension is what Kant calls the noumena, and Schopenhauer calls the Will. The noumena is independent of the forms of time and space and is outside of the sphere of human cognition. In this sense we can never directly access the noumena in a conscious manner. However, we can be aware that it exists. Since the noumena is outside of the empirical world, and since we also exist as noumena, it is possible to believe that we are free in the noumenal world, and thus morally culpable. This noumenal half of ourselves is our intelligible character (Koßler 233).
Whereas our empirical character is according to Kant entirely determined by the laws of nature, our actions may at the same time be expressions of our intelligible character. If our actions are expressions of our intelligible character — Kant acknowledges he cannot prove this — then morality is possible. While Schopenhauer incorporates the noumenal and phenomenal distinction, as well as the notion of the intelligible character into his own ethical philosophy, Schopenhauer is almost uniformly critical of the rest of Kant’s ethics.
Julian Young quotes H.J. Paton’s summation of Kant’s ethical philosophy which states in very concise form its main tenets,
(1) If a principle of rational action is valid for any, then it is valid for all rational beings. (2) A rational being must think of his practical principles as rational principles. Therefore, (3) A rational being must think of his practical principles as universally valid. That is, (4) A rational being must regard his practical principles as universal laws valid for all rational beings. (Paton qtd. in Young 197)
Paton is essentially describing the Categorical Imperative, which requires all rational agents to only act in a manner which could be universalized as a law for all rational agents. For instance, I might be able to will that I embezzle money from the government for a private jet to travel in. Yet, if everyone went about getting a private jet — or some other luxury — by the same means, this would bankrupt the government and ruin the economy. So upon reflection, this is not something I could will as a universal law for all rational beings, as it would end up harming myself.
Schopenhauer strongly criticizes the Categorical Imperative and the Kantian notion that all human beings must be treated as ends. Schopenhauer questions the Kantian claim that we have duties to ourselves based on the Categorical Imperative and the notion of humans as ends (Schopenhauer 19). Schopenhauer argues it is preposterous to assume we need to find an a priori law to tell us to do what it is already in our nature to do, which is to act in our own interests (Schopenhauer 19). He sums it up nicely by saying “but [there is] an amusing effect in cases where people begin to show anxiety about their persons, and talk quite earnestly of the duty of self-preservation; the while it is sufficiently clear that fear will lend them legs soon enough, and that they have no need of any law of duty to help them along” (Schopenhauer 19). Another issue that Schopenhauer has with the Kantian ethical philosophy is that if sound, there should not be moral dispute about anything, which is clearly not the case. This is because since Kant bases morality on reason, and believes that everyone has access to it — if they did not have access to the moral law, they could not be blamed for not following it, based on the ought implies can principle — and so, we should assume that there will be no more issue with moral truths as there is with truths of “arithmetic and geometry” (Schopenhauer 38).
Schopenhauer instead anchors his ethical philosophy on the notion of compassion (Fox 376). Compassion is a much more suitable candidate for an ethical foundation than what Kant is able to propose with his Categorical Imperative. I strongly agree with Schopenhauer’s position that rationality and morality are distinct (Young 195). Julian Young describes Schopenhauer’s view of Kant’s position to mean that “failures to choose to perform morally required acts are always failures in rationality, that is, the choices of a fully rational agent are always consonant with the requirements of morality,” yet “all ages have recognised the concepts of rationality and morality to be entirely distinct and that they have been right: Machiavelli’s prince, for example” (195). Since the two are distinct, we need a non-rational basis for morality. Not only is compassion non-rational, it can actually serve to motivate action which is necessary for Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer argues this his ethics is based on metaphysics, for him explanation of how compassion can serve as ethical foundation is impossible without the Will (Koßler 231). For Schopenhauer a psychological explanation of compassion will always fail or come up short (Fox 377). The ethical significance of the Will is that we are all one (Fox 378). While we are individuals in the phenomenal aspect of existence, and thus often look out for our own self-interests, on a certain level we know that this individuation is an illusion (Fox 378). Hence, when we feel the pain or suffering of another, we are feeling with our being a metaphysical truth, that that creature’s pain is our own. When we hurt someone, or some animal, we are hurting ourselves. The notion that we are immune from the pain of others is an illusion, and we can never achieve true morality unless we recognize this. Importantly, this recognition does not need to be clear in our abstract reasoning. Hence, many people can be moral and compassionate without having ever read Schopenhauer’s philosophy. This is a strength of Schopenhauer’s philosophy over Kant’s, since Kant’s seems to require a very strong grasp of philosophy to put morality into effect.
Since Schopenhauer’s ethical philosophy relies on compassion as the understanding that we are all one metaphysically, it would be arbitrary to not apply Schopenhauer’s ethics to animals. The first main reason for this is that while animals may not have reason, abstract reason and understanding of the noumenal/phenomenal distinction is not necessary. Our more basic recognition of the pain of others as being in some sense our own pain need not be intellectual. Many sentient non-human beings regularly display behavior that if found in a human would be described as compassionate. We may dismiss many of their actions as the result of instinct, but this just means it is inherent in the creature. Many human actions are instinctual. For instance, the fact that children appear cute to us makes it more likely we will be caring and loving towards them. If children had not evolved to appear cute to us, we might not be as compassionate towards them. This does not mean we are not compassionate because our compassion can be explained in instinctual terms. Second, since compassion for Schopenhauer is based on the fact that metaphysically we are all one, we must realize that this applies to all existence, not just humans. Thus, when we harm a dog or a cat, or have a pig slaughtered, we are not just harming those poor creatures, we are in a very real sense harming ourselves.
Michael Allen Fox recognizes this application to animals and credits Schopenhauer for explicitly acknowledging this connection (369). Fox goes on to criticize Schopenhauer for not being consistent in applying ethical protection to sentient animals. Fox is critical of Schopenhauer claiming we can eat animals and use them as work-animals, because if we starved ourselves or conducted the labor that work-animals currently do, we would ourselves suffer more than the animals themselves (381). Schopenhauer is not claiming that we have license to impose suffering on animals as we see fit, but that if the ultimate goal is to reduce suffering as much as possible, in cases where suffering is inevitable — either the animal is slaughtered or we starve to death — we should take the route which promises the least suffering. Since animals are not as aware of what is going on, they will not suffer as acutely as human beings would.
In my mind, Schopenhauer offers a strong argument on why we can slaughter animals for food to prevent starvation. Fox however criticizes Schopenhauer saying “many would argue against [this] — also on utilitarian grounds — that the optional (human) gustatory pleasure derived from eating meat does not outweigh the (animal) pleasure thereby denied…” (381). In isolation, there is nothing wrong with Fox’s criticism. The issue is that Fox is criticizing Schopenhauer in a manner entirely divorced from his historical context. Meat and dairy was seen as an essential part of the diet in the Western Europe of Schopenhauer’s time, and Schopenhauer was taking into consideration also people who lived in more northern climates who had a larger dependence on meat. I grant that Schopenhauer could have in theory lived as a vegan. There are other cultures in the world that were vegan during Schopenhauer’s life. However, there is no evidence that Schopenhauer had the nutritional knowledge of how to go about that diet. There was clearly not the plethora of vegan information and food alternatives that there are today. It was in this context that Schopenhauer implied we need meat to survive. I have no doubt that if Schopenhauer was a contemporary of ours, he would not claim it is ethical to slaughter animals for food when we have practical alternatives.
Ultimately, I disagree with Schopenhauer that compassion cannot be explained psychologically. If compassion is metaphysical in nature, resting on the notion of our unity, then having a brain — psychological processes — should not be necessary. A rock should be able to feel compassion. If someone thinks the example of a rock is unfair, I will point to solitary creatures. The female black widow will never have compassion for her mate, nor for her children which she will eat if given the chance. The same can be said of certain species of frogs and other more advanced animals who cannibalize each other. These examples all involve subjects with brains and some level of intelligence, which are entirely devoid of compassion. There is no way to explain how compassion is entirely lost in some creatures, but present in social creatures, if we do not locate compassion in the psychology of social creatures. This does not mean I reject Schopenhauer’s philosophy which states we are one metaphysically. I accept it, and I believe it beautifully illustrates why compassion is a good idea for us; it just does not explain why we have compassion to begin with.
Since compassion is just a psychological feeling — though one I quite admire and encourage — I am ultimately sympathetic to Nietzsche who dispenses with Schopenhauer’s morality, and moral truths altogether. There is no doubt in my mind that the road to Nietzsche begins with Schopenhauer’s rejection of reason as a basis for morality.
Fox, Michael Allen. ““Boundless Compassion”: The Contemporary Relevance of Schopenhauer’s
Ethics.” The European Legacy 11.4 (2006): 369-87. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
Koßler, Matthias. “Matthias Koßler, Life Is but a Mirror: On the Connection between Ethics,
Metaphysics and Character in Schopenhauer – PhilPapers.” (2008): 230-50. On the
Connection between Ethics, Metaphysics and Character in Schopenhauer – PhilPapers.
- Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Basis of Morality. Trans. Arthur Brodrick Bullock. London:
Humanitarian League, 1915. Print.
Young, Julian. “Schopenhauer’s Critique of Kantian Ethics.” Kant-Studien 75.1-4 (1984): Web.