The Will to Life
The last four articles in this series on philosophy in the Age of Information have been focused on understanding the universe-in-itself as it is. The universe-in-itself was separated into the physical and the metaphysical, the constraints on knowledge and speculation were defined, the information world was identified and considered, and the aesthetic experience was conveniently located as a subset of the information world.
The Edges of Understanding
An effort to find the edges of our understanding using Kant’s framework of transcendental idealism and by defining the…
The final area of philosophy to consider in the Age of Information is ethics. However, grappling with ethics becomes a question not about the universe-in-itself as it is, but how it ought to be. Ethics is about the choices we make to interact with the universe-in-itself, and how we change the universe-in-itself to suit our needs, wants, and desires. This article will lay a foundation for ethics in the Age of Information, beginning with finding a shared basis for ethical considerations, identifying a concept called the will to life, understanding the role of the individual and the species in that will to life, and understanding the power of free will in our ethical decision making.
Shared Basis for Ethics
If there is to be any hope for developing a shared basis for ethics, then we must identify and define a common purpose or set of purposes for life in the universe. Unfortunately, humanity has developed many diverse theories regarding our purpose in life, which may share some common principles and ideas, but also often contradict one another in ways which make finding a shared basis for ethics seem impossible. Our previous epistemological model can help us find some common principles to develop a shared basis for ethics.
As a quick review, Kant splits the universe-in-itself into two parts: the sensible world which we experience with our senses, and the intelligible world we speculate about based on the sensible world. Prior to Kant, all knowledge was thought to exist only in the intelligible world, but Kant’s division makes knowledge and speculation real and part of the sensible world. The sum of all externalized knowledge and speculation about the universe-in-itself is the information world, and within that information world is Plato’s World of Ideas, or what we would call modern scientific consensus.
From the last article, we discovered that the information world still contains other models outside of modern scientific consensus to explain the nature of the universe-in-itself. Most of these models do not conflict with the knowledge we have about the sensible world within modern scientific consensus, accepting in large part this scientific understanding of the sensible world. But these models do differ greatly in the speculation about the intelligible world, particularly when it comes to the origins and consequences of ethical behavior. Some of these models believe ethical behavior is determined by a supreme deity or some form of karmic balance. Some of these models also believe the consequences of our behavior will determine our status in a speculated afterlife.
All these considerations, however, are outside our sensible experience, even with the extensions to our sensible experience made possible by technology. Without some way of knowing which model is accurately speculating about the intelligible world, we can never base a common ethics on any one of these models. Historically, this is often why religious and ideological wars have been fought.
Expanding the Information World
Fourth in a series of articles considering the Age of Information and different categories of information in the…
If we are going to build a common ethical system for the species, then we need to build it off a common understanding of the sensible world. Modern scientific consensus, based upon observation and experimentation, is widely considered just such a common understanding of our sensible world. Disagreement may exist about the more metaphysical or speculative parts of modern scientific consensus as discussed in the third article of this series, particularly where it clashes with one of these other competing models. However, in the following exploration of this model, we’ll see that even these ethical models conform to this base ethical understanding in many ways.
The Metaphysics of Scientific Endeavor
Third in a series of articles considering the Age of Information and the role of philosophical metaphysics in…
The Will to Life
How we choose to understand the sensible world greatly affects our understanding of ethical behavior. We must first agree on what is before we can determine what ought to be. Our previous theories for understanding the purpose of life in the universe have been simplistic, either as myths for the sake of pleasing some deity, or because of ruthless evolutionary processes. In fact, Nietzsche felt that understanding the purpose of life was the key to unlocking our understanding of ethics.
“Nietzsche’s concept of life reveals such a subsumption of inner processes under a single general purpose that coordinates every individual. Thus, Nietzsche regards life as an absolute value, the essentially important thing in the manifestation of experience… According to Nietzsche, we will because we live, whereas for Schopenhauer, we live because we will.” (Simmel, Schopenhauer & Nietzsche, 76)
Modern religious scholars often incorporate our modern scientific understanding into their own historical understandings. Modern scientific consensus has moved on from simplistic to complex understandings of evolutionary processes, which focus on holistic adaptation over single-trait advancements. While our understanding of these processes has grown more complex, each is based on two simple purposes for all life: survival and reproduction.
“Starting from organic life, which is propagated by successive acts of procreation from a hypothetical original seed, we may derive a speculative image of life in which life flows constantly through all individual beings, giving meaning and significance to accidentally adapted forms so long as it permeates them. Thus, by a metaphysical justification, life would be the vehicle of form and of the perfection of value, and individual bearers of life would not have the right to make any special demands.” (Simmel, Schopenhauer & Nietzsche, 159)
These are the purposes of life that we can all agree to. We can’t really make demands on the purposes of life, but we should make demands on each other to fulfill these objectives. In fact, we can also see how many other ethical models use these core purposes when determining their ethical or moral rules. Murder and assault are actions which go against survival directly. Theft, impoverishment, and abandonment heavily reduce the ability of one’s survival. Even outdated sexual moral codes were conceived in part towards the regulation of reproduction and protection from sexually transmitted diseases. These ethical rules make sense since any ethical model which does not uphold survival and reproduction for the species often doesn’t last very long.
Understanding Individual and Species
It’s important here to note that survival and reproduction are goals for the species, not necessarily every individual. We should resist the fallacy of division, which suggests that the goals for the species must also be the goals for every individual within the species. Some individuals within every species are not capable of survival and reproduction, despite all the advancements in modern technology. Some individuals choose not to survive or reproduce, for a variety of social and cultural reasons. Individuals may not always fulfill these life processes, but enough of the species must follow these two directives to continue existing.
Nietzsche suggests a different way to understand our concept of species:
“In contrast to the idea of a permanent fixity of species, the essence of evolution is that each singular being is in some way a specific step on the evolutionary path. What we call ‘species’ is merely a practical and useful summation of beings which approximate each other but nevertheless vary in innumerable ways according to their harmonies and tensions and their advantages and drawbacks.” (Simmel, Schopenhauer & Nietzsche, 150)
Our notion of a species is not really one of conformity to certain traits and behaviors, so much as one of genetically compatible, yet diverse individuals. Each species’ strength is not found in conformity to specific ideals, but in its diversity of understanding and expression. Once we begin to understand that life has absolute value, and when we begin to appreciate our diversity, we also embrace the nobility and dignity of every individual.
“Therefore, nobility must be described, and we will examine this more closely below, as a formal conduct which characteristically unites a resolute personality and a lucid objectivity. As an approach to the quality of personal value, nobility denotes the acknowledgment of the individual’s objective value… The noble person has ‘dignity’. Dignity is an inherently relational concept: one is worthy of something according to an objective criterion, whether or not one receives his due.” (Simmel, Schopenhauer & Nietzsche, 162)
This dignity has spread from the white men inferred by Nietzsche, and by extension Simmel, to include recognition of this same dignity in women, people of color, LGBTQIA populations, and other diverse traits within the species to include everyone in principle, if not equally in practice. Genetics is now what connects us as a species, based upon our compatibility, not our conformity. It is the source of our individuality and our simultaneous membership in the larger species. And each individual’s inherent dignity is what gives the species as a whole objective value. Nietzsche joins the individual and the species into a common ethic of evolving humanity.
“Although it appears paradoxical and seems to be plausible only if the basic and elementary ethical forms are purified and intellectually freed from all sentiments related to their contents, it is just by such purification that Nietzsche transforms Kant’s basic sentiments from an individual morality into an ethics for the species.” (Simmel, Schopenhauer & Nietzsche, 166)
We can define the life process as an individual effort and as a larger effort of the species. If the goals are to survive and reproduce, then this represents our mutual struggle as a species, defined by our material and environmental conditions. Individuals may not always fulfill these life processes, but enough of the species must follow these two directives to continue existing. Success becomes based on persistence through diverse adaptation by the species, not based on individual conformity. We can describe this mutual struggle as “the will to life”.
Understanding Free Will
Since ethics is what we ought to do as individuals, then it also follows that ethics is about our choices. Kant argues that we either have an objective, if limited form of free will within the universe, or simply a subjective belief that we have free will when we act in the universe. We may or may not actually have free will, but we behave as if we have free will and so we can presume it. For if we do not have free will, then we cannot make choices, and we really have no basis for ethical considerations at all. (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 115–116)
Free will is an evolutionary adaptation that life has provided members of our species, along with consciousness, reason, pattern recognition, and other adaptations. Our free will, or its perception, becomes a tool for us to live our individual lives and to either directly or subconsciously fulfill the will to life for the species. Free will means individuals can choose to die and choose not to reproduce, may even choose to do both for the good of themselves, the group, or the species. But the will to life is fulfilled for the species as long as enough members survive and reproduce.
Choosing Ethical Systems
We may not be able to make any special demands on our two core purposes as a species of life, but we can make demands on ourselves and on others on how we fulfill those purposes. Our free will, coupled with our reason, allows us to meet the challenges of our environment with regards to our survival and reproduction. Darwin reminds us that it is not the strongest or the fastest species which survives, but the most adaptable to change. Our free will also gives us an unlimited plasticity of response to ethical demands that is neither prefigured by a supreme being nor subject to existing ethical norms or rules.
How we choose to meet those purposes as individuals and as a species becomes the basis of our ethical systems. Ethical systems should be judged by how well they fulfill the goals of the life process at both levels. Since ethical systems should be judged by fulfillment of the life process, and not by any objective standard of goodness or justice, we can choose as individuals, groups, or as a species which ethical systems we wish to use to fulfill those goals.
Some ethical systems can be cruel and inhuman, as we’ve seen historically in wars over scarcity, or as hypothesized within The Handmaid’s Tale. Older ethical systems believed LGBTQIA individuals were “unnatural” to the life process. Reductionist models such as these run the risk of cruel and inhuman treatment, often because they ignore the inherent dignity which life grants to each member of the species. Negative ethical systems like these often have trouble adapting to changes in material or environmental conditions.
Positive ethical systems can also be built, which consider additional concepts beyond individual dignity, like autonomy, freedom, and duty. Each of these additional considerations can be included within our ethical systems, as long as there’s a clear understand of what is meant by those terms and how they affect the rest of the ethical system. Extensible models like this allow for other shared life purposes outside of the a priori of survival and reproduction and can adapt as needed to changes in material or environmental conditions.
Often our choice of ethical systems influences the rest of our social, political, and economic systems, as each is necessary in some respect for survival and reproduction. We aren’t limited to believing that all humans must conform as a species to choose an ethical system but can recognize and appreciate the diversity and dignity of every individual within the whole. And most importantly, if ethical systems are not working within society, we can change them to better meet our collective goals of survival and reproduction.
Ethics is about what we ought to do. What we ought to do should be based on what we consider to be the purpose of our lives. While many models for understanding the nature of life and the universe may differ when it comes to speculation about the intelligible world, nearly all models accept the knowledge we have gathered about the sensible world. Therefore, our ethical models should be based upon our common understanding of the sensible world, which is found in our modern scientific consensus.
Modern scientific consensus gives two definitive purposes for every species: survival and reproduction. Survival is a purpose for every individual, but reproduction is a purpose for the species. Only enough individuals must survival and reproduce for the species to persist. Moreover, life itself grants each individual dignity by their diversity and compatibility, along with the gifts of consciousness, free will, reason, and others from our membership within the species.
We may not be able to make demands on these purposes, but we can make demands on each other for how we fulfill those purposes as a species. Our free will gives us unlimited plasticity to fulfill these purposes, which can consider or reject individual dignity or other shared ethical ideals. We can choose to survive and reproduce as we see fit, and our ethical systems are judged by how well they continue to produce these results.
The next article will look at how our understanding of the will to life, or the life process itself, can affect the ethical systems which we can develop.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton, Harper & Row, 1964.
Simmel, Georg. Schopenhauer & Nietzsche. Translated by Helmut Loiskandl, Deena Weinstein, and Michael Weinstein, University of Illinois Press, 1991.