Mar 20, 2013

Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud: Behavior and Morality of Modern Society

Authors from the mid-nineteen century to twentieth century discuss how and why human behave as they do and their underlying reason. They try to understand the origin of morals and the purpose of civilization without the reliance on an external God. Nietzsche argues that morality is purely man-made while Darwin believes the formation of morality is an evolutional process. Freud formulizes two principles that dictate the behavior and morality of society. Their theories appear different or even contradictory; but, in fact, they are all related and complementary. Nietzsche’s argument is dominant when influence dictated by Darwin’s theory is negligible. Freud’s argument is comprehensive when we restrict time scale and take the results of Darwin’s theory for granted.

Nietzsche tries to build a foundation of morals from human’s institutional history.  He argues that “good” is not a value from God or nature, rather it is a value created and manipulated by humans. “Good” is first defined by those in power and then destroyed and reinvented by the priests. At first, the nobles, powerful and high ranking call themselves “good”(10). Then come the priests. They are powerless but create an “idea-creating” and “ value-reshaping”(17) hate against the nobles, the high ranking or simply “the good” as they redefine the meaning of “good”. While the wellborn constantly feel happy, people of low status have to trick themselves to believe they are happy (19-21). Therefore, the priests, seizing such opportunities to unite the people of ressentiment-the hostility towards the nobles, propose the corresponding definition of “good” and morals that are completely distinct from the ones invented by the nobles. They claim that misery is a gift from God and that poverty, powerlessness and suffering are good, pious and blessed (Nietzsche 16). They claim that they are just and demand only justice and the victory of God (27). They condemn the nobles and powerful to be evil and godless (17). Morals of good and bad are first invented by the nobles, then significantly transformed by priests and preserved to this day.
Contrary to the argument by Nietzsche, Darwin argues that morals arise purely from natural selection. Although Darwin does not discuss moral as a separate subject in The Origin of Species, he gives his stand on all traits of animals in general, which includes their morals as well.  He states that natural selection is scrutinizing every variation of animals all the time (113). According his theory of evolution, if a certain moral is good for the survival of individuals or the group as a whole, it will be selected and preserved. The inverse is also true. The morals that hurt the chances of survival will be selected out of the species. In his later work The Descent of Man, Darwin discusses the origins of morals in detail. He argues that moral qualities arise from social instincts. Such social instincts are ”highly beneficial to the species ” and therefore are likely acquired through natural selection (247).
The morality theory of Nietzsche and that of Darwin seems mutually exclusive as the former consider it to be purely artificial while the later treat it as a natural process. On a close inspection, the two theories describe two distinct factors of morality, namely instinctual influence and cultural influence and complete each other. Darwin focuses on internal morality selected by nature while Nietzsche deals with acquired morality that varies through time and culture. In the following passage, we examine a widely recognized moral, incest and explain it by both theories. We show that the seemingly conflicting arguments are actually two supportive pieces in a complete morality theory.
Incest with an immediate family is condemned in virtually all cultures. It is one of the oldest laws in society that is still prevailing today. According to contemporary biology, incest will greatly lower the survival rate of children because of congenital birth defects. Combinations of recessive gene from inbreeding are much more likely than normal breeding and produce disorders in descendants. Even though people at ancient time have no knowledge on genetics or heredity, natural selection has been taking place all the time. Appling Darwin’s argument to such behavior, society has to condemn incest to be more successful in surviving.  Indeed, the condemnation is observed over all culture.
Condemnation of incest with an immediate family is strong evidence that morals are created or selected by nature. It undermines Nietzsche’s argument on “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad”.  The nobles have no incentive to define such incest as bad. According to Nietzsche, they define themselves as good first and define the counterpart, common people, as bad (10). Thus the attitude of society towards incest should have remained neutral. Some might defend Nietzsche by arguing that priests introduce condemnation of incest because priests need to maintain a spiritual and pure appearance. However, this argument is circular. Because if priests condemn incest to build appearance and authority, which is eventually used to introduce new morals, then condemn of the incest comes before the change of morals. Therefore, such incest has to be recognized as inheritably evil by most people before priests start to redefine morals. Since the nobles do not define it, the dislike of incest has to be inherent.
According to Darwin then, all culture should condemn any form of incest with absolutely no exception. Why is incest practiced in some royal families such as European monarchs and even endorsed by the societies? The nobles tend to marry each other to preserve purity of bloodlines and to avoid the corruption of blood. This kind of marriage is actually a weaker form of incest as the marriage only happens between two distant relatives. The survival chances of offspring are therefore hardly decreased this way. When the grasp of natural selection is not an immediate present, the social factor becomes dominant. Nietzsche argues that the nobles define themselves as good and common people as bad. The blood of the nobles is thus considered good and should not be mixed with the bad blood of common people.
Therefore, piecing together the arguments by Darwin and Nietzsche, we conclude that some fundamental morality is determined by natural selection and invariant with either time or culture. On the other hand, when the behavior is not immediately related to survival, social definition either by the nobles or the priests become dominant and might change depending on who has the final judgment on such morality. This explains why the weaker form of incest is endorsed while the stronger form of it is always condemned.
 Freud argues that humans are driven by two principles: pleasure principle from Eros and reality principle from aggression . Pleasure principle is ”the programme of becoming happy”(54) and reality principle is to avoid pain. They are similar to “the greatest happiness principle”. Darwin states, “all man desire their own happiness”(248).
While Darwin proposes passive selections by nature, Freud suggests that humans, more specifically the desire of humans, shape how society behaves. He states that the purpose of civilization is Eros and further argues that its purpose is to combine individuals into larger group (111). Aggression on the other hand is setting each man against all and try to bring destruction to civilization (111). The libidinal bond is stronger than the common interests of collaborating and holds man together. Freud proposes the question why Eros would have such effect. Freud cannot give an answer to this question because he builds all his arguments on the two empirical principles without exploring the origins of such principles. Therefore his theory can explain how the behaviors of society arise from such principles but fall short when answering why such principles have to lead to behaviors of grouping and collaborating.
This question about the effect of Eros can be answered if we look one step further to question why the pleasure principle and reality principle exist from Darwin’s argument. Darwin argues that the social instincts that make human enjoy each other’s company and defend each other are highly beneficial to the species. According to natural selection, such characteristics will be selected and eventually fixed to become instincts. In other words, it is not surprising that he cannot find an explanation because he reverses the cause and effect of pleasure principle and beneficial behaviors. Pleasure principle, in this case Eros, combines human together, moves civilization forward and benefits mankind greatly. However, pleasure induced by Eros is not the original cause, rather the effect! Because the benefit of human or other lower animals grouping together is so great and boost survival chance so much, such behaviors are selected by nature. At the end of the selection, all human have the tendency to take pleasure in other’s company. Only then, does the trait Eros come into being. Those who do not have Eros have already perished along the way of evolution.  Darwin argues that social animals are impelled to aid fellow members as well (247). The discovery of similar traits in animals suggests that the selection process happened in pre-historical times. Freud, restricting his attention only on the steady state of society, only observes the latter stage of the selection process that Eros is drawing people together and helping civilization. Freud and Darwin examine the same problem in different time scales. Darwin zooming out to the beginning of mankind uses natural selection to explain human behaviors. Freud, restricting to the period of civilization, build his theory on pleasure principle and pain principle. Both theories are valid, but Freud theory follows logically from Darwin’s theory, as both pleasure principle and pain principle are the results of natural selection.
Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud build their theories of human behavior. These theories seem contradictory but are actually complementary. Darwin provides the fundamental tools for understanding human behavior and morality in a large scale. Nietzsche explains the social aspects of morality when the force of natural selection is weak and social structure takes over. Freud builds his theory from two empirical principles that are the results of natural selection and build his theory on those two principles rather than nature selection itself.

Works cited

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Indiana: Hackett Publishing. 1998. Print.


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