The Doomed Moralists, Part Two


In Part One of the Doomed Moralists, I argued that a moral practice becomes good because it makes a society more powerful. I don’t want to restate too much, but I took the view that good and bad are constantly evolving concepts that are always tested in the crucible of competition. Fellow writer Malcolm Greenhill responded by saying I was essentially arguing in the same way as a sophist named Thrasymachus.

If the name Thrasymachus isn’t immediately ringing any bells, don’t worry. I’ll confess I required a Google session myself. In the Platonic Dialogues, Thrasymachus is an opponent of Socrates, arguing that justice consists simply in whatever is best for the ruler. Hence, if it serves the ruler’s interests to throw puppies off the city walls, it is just to throw puppies off the city walls.

While the interests of the ruler and the power of a society are indeed related, I think I’m taking a slightly different, or at least more elaborated, position than our sophist friend Thrasymachus. Let me give an example of what I mean.


            King Seonjo and The War Diary of Yi Sun-shin.

I know of no better Thrasymachian ruler than King Seonjo of Joseon. As he is portrayed in the War Diary of Yi Sun-shin, he and his court are excellent at Thrasymahus’ vision of justice. From purely the standpoint of maintaining his own power, his rule was a smashing success. By the end of his reign, almost all the talented people in his kingdom had either perished or fled. Anyone who could conceivably challenge his rule, at least internally, had been neutered.

However, this Thrasymachian style left him unable to defend his kingdom against outside attacks, first from Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s newly united Japan, later from Chinese encroachment, and sent his kingdom into a long decline after his death. I personally consider him a miserable failure.

Contrast him with a ruler like Ghengis Khan. (I wanted to say King Sejong, but I feared you might start throwing things at me if I keep using obscure examples.) The Great Khan made his society powerful. He including scores of deeply competent men who, should they wish, could be deadly enemies. Take the example of Subutai, the general who conquered more territory than any commander in the world’s history.

Scary competent Mongol general Subutai, scary competent Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin.

While widely considered the finest cavalry general in history, Subotai’s first interaction with the Great Khan was actually to shoot him in the neck. Such a man is clearly dangerous to Ghengis Khan’s person and his dominance over the tribe. Imagine how much safer Ghengis could have made his succession and his dominion if he’d gotten rid of Subotai and everyone else who could conceivably oppose him.

Seonjo handled his version of Subotai far differently. Blessed with a popular, wildly effective and incredibly badass subordinate, our protagonist the king decided that such talent might overshadow his own very modest gifts and undermine his personal power. Indeed, Seonjo repeatedly tortured and demoted Admiral Yi Sun-shin, considered by many to be the finest naval commander in all history, before screwing him out of most of his navy and dropping hints that the end of the Imjin War would probably mean more torture and demotion. Yi died during the final battle of the war, in what was probably a stroke of luck for him.

The analysis here is that Thrasymachus is wrong because it is not the power of the ruler that is the arbiter of “justice,” it is the power of the society as a whole. Seonjo made himself powerful relative to the people by kneecapping the people. Ghengis Khan made the Golden Horde ungodly powerful by elevating people of talent like Subutai – men who, should they defect, would be incredibly scary enemies.

Mr. Greenhill continued by asking if I wasn’t actually advocating a type of moral nihilism. In his own words:

“(Speaking of the advantages of democracy) Why should you care about giving people more stake, making it harder to abuse people and legitimizing decisions without recourse to violence? These considerations involve the use of traditional moral concepts, but you are only concerned with whether democracy can compete with other systems not about human freedom dignity and autonomy. You say you don’t care about right or wrong and that these concepts only come into existence once a society is strong enough to compete with others. This is deceptive as you are just giving us your stipulative definition that moral concepts appear once a society becomes powerful. Your true position is moral nihilism, the belief that no moral concepts exist at all. This can be seen from your statement that “If slavery…is the way to continue existing, a society should institute slavery.” This sentiment is completely devoid of any moral content as it is usually understood.”

While I stand by my statement that if slavery was a big enough advantage, it would exist in all societies, I don’t deny the need for right and wrong. I do deny the need for a priori right and wrong based on moral concepts like equality or freedom. I also don’t think that human dignity and freedom come after strength. I would actually go farther than that and say that dignity and freedom don’t come at all UNLESS they make the society stronger, or at least, not weaker.

Slavery didn’t become morally wrong until industrialization made it a disadvantage. That’s why Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha didn’t question the institution of slavery. 

Let’s take freedom of speech as an example of a freedom or manifestation of human dignity. I would argue that it exists because freedom of speech is a useful check against waste, stupidity and unexamined assumptions, all of which are bad for a society’s power. When these benefits outweigh the destabilizing effect of free speech, freedom of speech is good. When these benefits do not outweigh the destabilizing effects, it is right to abridge freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, then, is good to the extent it allows the society to continue existing and continue imposing meaning on reality. The same concept applies to slavery, human sacrifice or wars of extermination with the caveat that slavery, human sacrifice and wars of extermination are, in the modern world, very clearly not good for the continued existence of society.

So no, I don’t think I’m a moral nihilist. I think I believe that goodness consists of all those things that promote continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality. I believe badness consists of those things that end existence and promote meaninglessness. This allows me most of the flexibility of a moral relativist. I can point out that judging Robert E. Lee by Martin Luther King’s morals is folly while still being enough of a moral absolutist to tell you Josef Stalin was a bad dude.

Finally, Mr. Greenhill observed that my argument seems to be based on collectivist assumptions. “… your analysis is virtually all in terms of groups, societies or nations as opposed to individuals. You seem to hold the view that the former are the prime actors in society not the latter, ignoring the fact that it is individuals interacting together that make up societies and nations. The latter do not exist independently of the individuals that constitute them.”

Basically, yes, I agree that I’m making a collectivist analysis though, once again, I think it’s a little more nuanced than individualism vs collectivism. I hope you’ll bare with me as we venture down this rabbit hole.

I think the society is the basis from which productive individualism becomes possible. Let me explain why I think so. Let’s say that Albert Einstein is smarter than anyone at the University of Generica. Deprive Albert Einstein of society and you have primitive individualism, basically a very clever caveman who will die and leave almost nothing behind. Deprive the University of Generica of its smartest member and it’s still able to operate. Deprive the University of Generica of its smartest member AND outside society and you still have an excellent basis on which to rebuild civilization. The ability to continue existing, the ability to continue existing and continue imposing meaning on that existence is vastly greater for the University of Generica than for even an individual as gifted as Albert Einstein.

That said, I’m also an existentialist. More than garden variety existentialism I consider myself a Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre fanboy. Those dudes are amazing – just mind blowing. So, how can I reconcile the extreme individualism of an existentialist outlook with methodological collectivism? With the concept of meaning.



 Do I have a man-crush, you ask? Oh yes, very much so. Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre.


Radical freedom, for Kierkegaard, sends us into and intense “fear and trembling” and requires that we retreat into the absurd and become highly creative knights of faith. This action, for Kierkegaard, is radically solitary. Doomed to freedom as we are, Sartre claims that we reclaim our lives from despair by imposing meaning on the chaos we are born into. I see the solution to fear and trembling, I see hope against the despair, in creating things that endure and are capable of imposing meaning on reality. For me, society is the best way to create that hope, to impose that meaning. I should clarify I’m not too picky about what specific meaning ends up getting imposed on reality, so long as there is a meaning.

The individual, born into radical, primitive freedom, might find meaning through society. Society, seeking to endure and create meaning, finds new expression through its transcendent individuals.



  1. Again, a very interesting post. However the comment that the industrial age ended slavery was somewhat of a speedbump. Slavery in one form or another exists, has always existed and will continue to exist as long as there is anything for anyone to gain from the practice.

    Here’s a trivial pursuit for you. Did the 13th amendment to the US constitution actually outlaw slavery in America and its territories or does it merely place a condition on the practice? The text is simple: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” “Slavery nor involuntary punishment” constitute a compound subject both parts of which are modified by “except.” Why then would a law setting slavery as the punishment upon conviction for violation not pass muster?

    1. Thanks!

      I completely agree that slavery persists. My point is that it didn’t become wrong until industrialization. I actually wrote an article about the economics of slavery, if you’re interested.

      As for the 13th amendment, I think that’s something for the lawyers to fight about. If slavery as punishment is legal, it sure explains the existence of prison work crews, for example. 🙂

  2. “The analysis here is that Thrasymachus is wrong because it is not the power of the ruler that is the arbiter of “justice,” it is the power of the society as a whole.”

    “I would actually go farther than that and say that dignity and freedom don’t come at all UNLESS they make the society stronger, or at least, not weaker.”

    Ben, as usual in these types of argument it often comes down to the use of language and the meaning of words. I personally have no idea what you mean by ‘society’. Do you mean the U.S. Government, the state, the military industrial establishment, American Muslims, American Jews, American Irish, the Amish or all of the above? What is the “power of society as a whole”? Is it the number of nukes we possess, our population size, our constitution, our GDP or what? To say that a powerful society (e.g. the U.S.) is always more right/just than a less powerful society (e.g. Switzerland) is to present a case for the absence of moral considerations not for their use. Of course you can always stipulate, as you do, that you are changing the customary definition of what it means to think morally, but that does not mean that we all have to go along with your changes.

    “Slavery didn’t become morally wrong until industrialization made it a disadvantage. That’s why Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha didn’t question the institution of slavery.”

    Not quite true (Luke 4:18), is a call to free the slaves or prisoners depending on the translation used:
    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the slaves from war,…” (see Cornilescu translation).

    Also, slavery is forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

    “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee.”

    “He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”

    “So no, I don’t think I’m a moral nihilist. I think I believe that goodness consists of all those things that promote continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality. I believe badness consists of those things that end existence and promote meaninglessness.”

    “I should clarify I’m not too picky about what specific meaning ends up getting imposed on reality, so long as there is a meaning.”

    Why am I not surprised that you end up admitting that you are an existentialist and a not too “picky” one at that? The above sentences really make no sense at all. Sartre was not talking about social meaning (whatever that means) but individual meaning. In other words, lacking any objective morality Sartre recommends making a commitment to anything we feel like to give meaning to our lives. When you say “goodness consists of all those things that promote continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality” you are conflating your view that only social wholes are relevant (you really mean the continued existence of society) with the existentialist/individualist position that we all have to find meaning in our lives, even if it is from an arbitrary commitment.

    1. Here’s the basic problem I’m trying to solve. The historical fluidity of morality makes moral absolutism a farce, in my eyes. However, if I embrace moral relativism I’m stuck in the awkward position of saying that I really have no grounds on which to condemn Adolf Hitler. This makes the idea of morality useless and would be truly nihilistic. I find this unsatisfactory.

      As such, I need some sort of moral absolutism that’s compatible with Amazonian cannibals, ancient Sumer and modern Japan. This led me on a search for moral values that must be present in a society (or individual) if it is to survive. The answer I came up with is just that, existence is good. I’ll get to why after I explain the second good.

      Bare existence chases me into another unsatisfactory corner because human endeavor is not the most durable thing in the world. Rocks, for example, exist with much greater reliability than anything we’ve ever managed. So, unless I wanted to make rocks into the highest moral good, I needed to go farther.

      This lead me to the observation that we are the literal way in which the universe becomes conscious of itself. I find this incredibly beautiful. We are scarce, we are fragile and we are tiny, but we are still (as far as we know) the birth of consciousness in the entire, immense, incredible universe. I think that can safely be shuttled into the good category as a way to distinguish ourselves from rocks.

      This leaves me with two moral imperatives. Neither works without the other. The first is existence because without existence meaning is impossible. The second is meaning, because without meaning existence is empty. This is where I converge with existentialism (which started in Christianity with Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, I’d remind you). Existence is a brute fact and meaning is the sacred duty that fills life.

      So, how does this connect to society? My answer goes back to those two goods. Existence without society is fleeting. Meaning without society is short-lived and primitive. Give society and Caesar can live on in our laws and histories. Provide a society and Albert Einstein has giants on whose shoulders he might stand. Deprive the individual of society, however, and you end up with this poor girl.

  3. Ben, in the last paragraph of my comment please change “no sense of all” to “no sense at all”.

  4. Ben, let me know if this post of mine gives you food for thought. Most people did not ‘get it’, but the implications of value pluralism are profound:

    1. Definitely it did.

      Reading your thesis again my answer is pretty much “yes.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear I’m a big Machiavelli fan and Berlin’s observation is, in my mind, brilliant. Perfect really isn’t desirable, even theoretically.

  5. Berlin believed that there was a limit to the differences between people and he argued for a moral minimum below which was inimical to humans. This takes care of the Nazism issue you were worried about as well as totalitarianism and slavery.

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