If all moral systems are arbitrary, does this make divine command theory, the idea that a God decides what is morally correct, fare any worse? Certainly not. In any form of Christianity, God’s establishment of morality is a distinct requirement. Furthermore, if there is no God, there is no morality because things like “good” and “evil” have no real content to them. “Morality,” in this case, is distinguished from “ethics” in that the former refers to the meaning or content of a specific action, while the latter deals with an action’s social implications. One cannot use these words interchangeably, or divine command theory makes no sense.
An example will clarify the issue. Imagine an obvious act that usually has some sort of moral idea associated with it – murder. Murder is almost always declared to be “wrong” or “against the law.” Why? Well, there are certainly practical reasons – our governments do not want their citizens killing each other, either for profit or because rampant violence means nothing would be accomplished, commerce would stop, and the like. That does not help any case claiming that it is an “evil” act. Using the faculty of reason, it could be conceived that “If person A murders, person A makes murder a universal law, and people should treat persons A as per his maxim” or “Murder makes people very sad; therefore, it violates the greatest happiness principle and it should be avoided” – these, however, are simply moral statements that have no factual content. Even deontology is practical, in that the universality brings a person to an element of the Golden Rule except with duty. Either way, it cannot be anything but arbitrary in that humanity has set up the system. It can be wrong by reason, certainly, but not “evil”. And it can be practical, but moral? To explain why a person should not murder another still does not explain it as “immoral.”
Nietzsche’s removal of “good” and “evil” stems from this problem. Such things are theological ideas and have no meaning apart from that context – after all, he titles one of his books Beyond Good and Evil. Without morality, without good and evil, any action is permissible. Why not seek to dominate the weak and become strong? Why oppose the “flow of nature?” Why take care of mentally disabled persons? Why not discriminate by race? Why not kill anyone? Why not create new, nature based values? The common appeal that “human beings are rational” does not put any chinks in the armor of arbitrariness.
For all humans know, consciousness may be simply a horrendously elaborate illusion over the natural instincts that makes humans “feel” like they are logical, or makes them “think” they are “good,” or some other nonsense. Take, for example, “welfare programs,” “social justice,” “helping the poor,” and other such things. They are meaningless and arbitrary ideas. They have meaning if God exists; if He does not, they are prudential (“they make me feel good, they make me better somehow”). All ethics, in this way, must be hollow and shallow in equal measure.
Even a completely materialist ethic brings humankind no closer to definitive, objective values. Naturalism does not bring about meaning – it emphasizes its own meaninglessness. Any moral idea can be traced to some biological use, which strips morality of any meaning or foundation – hence, being arbitrary.
Steven Jay Gould, for example, says that “…Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not given a priori; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn’t happen.”5 Just saying “it is the case” tells one nothing at all. Just because I can examine two different persons and say, “They are equal biologically” does not solve the problem. To make the jump from biological similarity to moral equality is a logical leap of the highest order.
That does not mean that a person has to follow Nietzsche’s system specifically, or any other ethical formulation. One can accept any moral system that works for them – a subjective construct which allows humans to cope with their existence. Without something like an omnipotent, omniscient, all-good God, no particular reason exists to accept any ethical or moral system because those qualities are only ascribed to reality when a specific religious metaphysics is involved.
Examine nature – all one sees is life and death, adaptation, and the will to survive; anything beyond that seems like a useless addition, in a sense. Certainly, such conclusions are not epistemically reliable, but not much is in human perception. The Übermensch , the Overman, becomes a natural conclusion to accept. People should create their own values, rather than letting society or otherwise dictate such things? Nietzsche sees all societies as a constraint on human freedom:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth…. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end..6
The masses can have their religion and their Kantian ethics and their utilitarianism, but the Overman can do what he wants because he expresses the individual’s will to power. One’s mind only moves beyond the animals in cunning and deviousness; The same desires are being fulfilled, just by different means. Kant’s arguments hold no water here either – rationality could only be a happy, or unhappy as may be the case, accident when God is dead. Moral skepticism, though unenviable in some sense, must be the case. Anyone could easily peg any moral system without an objective factor as arbitrary, useless, or simply prudential, and it is impossible to say anything at all in response because one knows it is the case.
5 Stephen Jay Gould, “Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History,” Natural History 11 (1984): 425.
6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Clancy Martin (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2005), 9-12.