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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 3j - Schopenhauer)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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3j)      Schopenhauer


i)                    Schopenhauer’s context and character


Schopenhauer represents a quite different development in the eternalist tradition after Kant from that of Hegel and Marx. If the trend of eternalism represented by Hegel and Marx brought us totalitarianism, war and genocide, that represented by Schopenhauer brought instead aesthetic individualism and Romantic orientalism. These tendencies may well have been complementary as opposed poles of response to the development of capitalism: on the one hand a socially-oriented transcendental humanism which denied value to individual experience, and on the other a search for universal values in individual experience which turned its back on the wider conditions on which it depended. Each of these types of eternalism ignored or despised the other in order to define itself independently, instead of entering into a dialogue which might have resulted in a more balanced outcome. Evidence of the conflict between these types of approach can be seen in Schopenhauer’s hatred of Hegel, whom he called an “impudent scribbler of nonsense” and a “notorious charlatan”[1], and of the Marxist Lukács’ account of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which he calls “bourgeois irrationalism”, and which he claims serves the purpose of “preventing an otherwise dissatisfied sector of the intelligentsia from concretely turning its discontent with …the existing social order, against the capitalist system in force at any given time”[2].


Schopenhauer, born the son of a rich Danzig merchant in 1788, was certainly a child of capitalism, since his inheritance provided him with a private income throughout his life and the opportunity to cultivate his sensibility through the aesthetic experiences offered by travel and the arts as well as to pursue his philosophical work. His values thus express sensual refinement and stress perception rather than conception in a way which may reflect the worldly orientation of his early education prior to his discovery of philosophy. Whilst this provides him with a grasp of the limitations of concepts which in some respects is non-dualist, in other respects (as I shall argue) it overshoots into a Romantic irrationalism.


Schopenhauer also seems to have been psychologically shaped by an unhappy relationship with his loveless mother, the effect of which was to form a pessimistic view of the world characterised by depression, isolation and insecurity[3]. Magee, by appeal to the fact-value distinction, claims that this pessimism is logically independent of his philosophy[4]. I shall argue, however, that Schopenhauer’s pessimism has a close relationship with the naïve optimism which is expressed by previous versions of eternalism in their approach to cosmic justice, for in both cases it is dogmatism about the nature of the cosmos which supports such moral projections. Pessimism in some respects may be justified by the same dogmatism that supports optimism in others, and it is the dualism of either that can perhaps be psychologically attributed to Schopenhauer’s childhood. Schopenhauer’s ethics are not in any case unambiguously pessimistic: rather they express an eternalist dogmatism that the value of the universe can be assessed at all which sometimes results in positive and sometimes in negative characterisations of it (even if it is the negative characterisations that are more striking to those who assume the positive characterisations of most of the Western eternalist tradition to be true). This dogmatism is prepared for and supported by his epistemology, which is certainly not value-neutral in the way that Magee suggests. The insights which are to be found among the errors of Schopenhauer’s work are to be attributed in my view, not to its independence from his pessimism, but to the respects in which he was not merely pessimistic.


A further important influence on Schopenhauer was Indian philosophical literature. Schopenhauer is certainly noteworthy as the first Western philosopher of any note to take Indian philosophy seriously. However, it needs to be noted both that the sources available to him in the early nineteenth century were often very inadequate, being filtered through many Western preconceptions, and that Schopenhauer never visited India or had any direct experience of the practices of Hinduism or Buddhism. His understanding of Buddhism, furthermore, came entirely from Hindu sources which tended to assimilate Buddhism to Hinduism rather than differentiating it. The result of this was that Schopenhauer could readily interpret the sources available to him in the light of a philosophy he had already created. As Magee stresses, Schopenhauer discovered a parallel between his philosophy and Indian philosophy rather than being influenced by Indian philosophy[5]. As a result, he either never discovered or ignored the Middle Way teaching of the Buddha, he never had his understanding of the value of asceticism challenged by experience of spiritual practices, and he was never obliged to confront the less palatable aspects of the Hindu philosophy that he was inclined to idealise.


Perhaps the strongest influence on Schopenhauer was that of Kant, from whom Schopenhauer derived the transcendental idealism which is central to his understanding and which he tried to systematise more fully than Kant had. As I shall argue, it is this influence from which Schopenhauer derived most of his philosophical eternalism, despite the fact that his ethics differ greatly from Kant’s. It is his relationship with Kant which mainly links Schopenhauer to the eternalist tradition, even if his theoretical asceticism often makes his beliefs compatible with the far older eternalism found in the Hindu tradition which the Buddha first identified and rejected.

ii)                  Schopenhauer’s non-dualism


Before going on to a criticism of the eternalist elements of Schopenhauer’s work I first want to give positive credit to its non-dualist elements. This non-dualism springs most fundamentally from Schopenhauer’s recognition that subject and object differentiation is purely a property of phenomena, and thus that the noumenon is not thus differentiated and hence unknowable. He argues for this on the basis of the complete interdependence of subject and object in representation[6], which implies that neither subject nor object could exist independently as noumenon. Comprehensible experience implies a priori both an experienced object and an assumed experiencer, but to apply either of these beyond the sphere of experience is simply a category mistake. As Schopenhauer writes, “This much is certain, namely that this something about which we are enquiring [the noumenon] must be by its whole nature completely and fundamentally different from the representation; and so the forms and laws of the representation must be wholly foreign to it”[7]. This implies a complete agnosticism about the noumenon such as I wish to put forward in this book: agnosticism about its subjectivity, its objectivity, and even its existence. For in discussing it abstractly one does not assert its existence as a metaphysical object, as I have argued in my case against linguistic idealism[8].


Thus far Schopenhauer penetrates non-dualism, and, insofar as he merely asserts that we cannot accurately apply phenomenal dualities to the noumenon, sticks to what can be negatively inferred from our experience and avoids metaphysics. These non-dualist assertions need to be clearly separated from the more positive assumptions he goes on to make about the noumenon, the chief of which is its unity. For it does not follow from the duality of the phenomenon that the noumenon is necessarily unified (this is a good reason for using the term “non-dualism” rather than “monism”, which implies such a unity). In referring to the noumenon as “will”, Schopenhauer does not mean to imply universal inner sense, consciousness, personality or purpose, as Magee stresses[9], but he does seem to imply such a unity and thus go beyond the proper bounds of noumenal agnosticism. I shall be saying more about the implications of this in the following subsections.


A further aspect of Schopenhauer’s non-dualism is the subjugation of knowledge to will (here in the particularised sense of the purposefully directed energy of a given being, not the whole noumenon). For him the will is the basic energy of existence which we must assume to be present in all animals[10], but the complex brain allowing self-consciousness and knowledge is a mere adaptation of that will as it appears in human beings. In this Schopenhauer recognises the prevalence of unconscious desire and the ways in which such desires condition our selection of knowledge. Here Schopenhauer merely applies non-dualism to the self, for if the essential or noumenal self is unknown it would be contradictory for it to consist in knowledge, and to assume that knowledge is prior is to dogmatically assert a phenomenal category as applicable to the noumenon. The unconscious will is merely a term for what we abstractly believe to be true of ourselves before we experience it, and to assert its existence is not to assert the existence of a metaphysical quantity but merely to assert that we are ignorant of what the subject consists in.


Schopenhauer applies this non-dualist understanding unflinchingly to his philosophy of death and conception, where he portrays our “existence” before and after our period of phenomenal experience neither in terms of the phenomenal survival of the subject (as an immortal soul) nor as the mere obliteration of the subject in a wholly opposed material world. However, he again goes beyond mere non-dualism  in assuming the essential unity of the will-to-live, or “nature” of which one becomes a part after death and before conception[11].


Schopenhauer’s recognition of our ignorance of the noumenal provides him with many other scattered insights, but he remains a dualist in more fundamental respects because of his failure to apply this understanding fully and consistently. Not only does he make unacknowledged metaphysical assumptions about the noumenon contrary to his stated intentions, but also falsely assumes the complete knowability of the phenomenal by contrast with the noumenal: an error which leads him to overestimate the extent and applicability of scientific knowledge of the phenomenal. A further implication of this is the complete dominance of the ego over all phenomena, and the lack of any psychological account of how the ego can be overcome, since the ego is taken to be the complete expression of the will-to-live in the individual. Schopenhauer’s most fundamental dualistic mistake, then, is not to follow through his recognition of the unconscious as an unknown aspect of the subject with the recognition that the nature and direction of the energies of the unconscious is also unknown, and thus not necessarily in alliance with the will-to-live that he identified in the ego. This error follows from his assumption of the unity of the noumenon, and it will be discussed in more detail in the following subsections.


iii)                The Principle of Sufficient Reason


Schopenhauer’s dualistic epistemological assumptions derive from the Kantian origins of his understanding of transcendental idealism, particularly from Kant’s Newtonian assumptions about the unity of time and space and the universality of causal explanations, all justified through transcendental argument. Schopenhauer provides a systematic and explicit account of these assumptions in his earliest philosophical work, The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. At the very beginning of this work Schopenhauer states that he is following a Kantian method expressed by two laws: those of homogeneity and specification. It is the law of homogeneity which provides the Principle of Sufficient Reason, although Schopenhauer wishes to specify the nature of its different aspects more precisely than have his predecessors.

The law of homogeneity tells us to start with kinds by observing the similarities and agreements in things, and also to unite these kinds into species, and these again into genera until we ultimately arrive at the highest concept that embraces everything. As this law is transcendental and essential to our faculty of reason, it presupposes that nature is in harmony with it, an assumption that is expressed by the old rule: entia praeter necessitatem non esse multiplicanda.[12]


The appeal to Ockham’s Razor here does not provide sufficient authority to overcome the obvious difficulties involved in accepting this principle. Schopenhauer has to assume the unity of nature (the unity of the noumenon) in order to explain the unity of phenomena under a connected series of types of transcendental explanation (which he then elaborates as causal, logical, mathematical and those of motive). This amounts to the assumption that all human beings (at least) must always understand phenomena according to the same spatial, temporal and categorial framework because they are noumenally unified. If we take our ignorance of noumena seriously, there is simply no reason why we should accept Ockham’s Razor in principle or choose to apply it in this fashion.


Furthermore, as Magee points out, this Kantian assumption is contradicted by twentieth-century developments in science which have removed Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry from their status as infallible explanations of phenomena. As Magee writes:

Where he [Kant] went wrong was in formulating the problem as that of explaining the provenance of a view of the world which was already in our possession and known to be incorrigibly and unchangingly true. It led him to produce an explanation not just of why something which is not the case is, but of why it necessarily is; and this explanatory theory can only be false as it stands. Schopenhauer took it over from Kant, and improved it, but left its central defect untouched. Not only did he retain necessity in the form of a universal and seamless causality governing the entire ongoing history of the natural world, he extended its sway throughout the realm of human choice.[13]


It is this aspect of Schopenhauer that makes him in some ways akin to advocates of scientism, for he not only takes a deterministic view of human phenomenal character, but adopts a descriptive morality which is similar to that of figures like Hume, for whom the universality of  predictable causal explanation is similarly important (though for rather different reasons). In this respect he carries the principle far beyond Kant, who was firm in his adherence to a  prescriptive understanding of morality, applying the Principle of Sufficient Reason to morality only in terms of motive and not in terms of cause[14].


Schopenhauer not only adopts this assumption of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but indicates his dogmatism by considering it self-evident.

To seek a proof of the principle of sufficient reason in particular is especially absurd and is evidence of a want of reflection. Thus every proof is the demonstration of the ground or reason for an expressed judgement which precisely in this way obtains the predicate true. The principle of sufficient reason is just the expression of this necessity of a reason or ground for every judgement. Now whoever requires proof for this principle, i.e. the demonstration of a ground or reason, already assumes thereby that it is true; in fact he bases his demand on this very assumption.[15]


This assertion depends on the imposition of a dichotomy between proof and its absence, and assumes that the principle can be asserted absolutely without any grounds at all simply because no absolute grounds exist. The principle is itself an absolute claim (that there is a reason for everything) and thus admits of no ground other than an absolute proof. The burden thus falls on its advocate to supply such a proof, whereas a critic only has to point out that no such proof is possible in order to have grounds for doubt (though not disproof). Schopenhauer is thus right to say that it is absurd to seek a proof of the principle, but this means that it is no less absurd to assert it and much more justifiable to doubt it.


The Principle of Sufficient Reason appears to contradict the non-dualist premises of Schopenhauer that I have already discussed, since if the noumena are understood to be unknowable, this also implies that absolute claims about an infinite quantity of possible phenomena, likewise merely inferred from actual finite phenomena and thus having the same  epistemological status, must be similarly unknowable. Despite the transcendental nature of the argument on which Schopenhauer relies, the extension of that argument to all possible cases effectively creates a noumenal claim about unknown cases. It is in order to try to avoid this contradiction that Schopenhauer introduces the Platonic Ideas. These are taken to exist within the world of representation, but only at the most general level: the most adequate objectivity possible of the thing-in-itself, as Schopenhauer puts it[16], representing what is essential to all grades of the will’s objectification[17]. These Ideas provide an explanation for the way in which the will has expressed itself phenomenally through the creation of a single coherent system, and are also, Schopenhauer claims, at times directly accessible to perception. In the Ideas are thus found both the infinite scope of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and the phenomenal nature that allows Schopenhauer to claim that they fall either directly or indirectly within the realm of experience.


The indirect understanding of the Ideas emerges through science and its formulation of the laws governing phenomenal manifestations of the will. In this way the Ideas reveal themselves in a hierarchy of manifestations from physics to psychology[18]. A more direct grasp of the Ideas, however, is gained through sublime aesthetic perception in which we “devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present”[19]. These two entirely different ways of encountering the Ideas are difficult to hold together because they seem to unnecessarily conflate the phenomenal objects of two quite different sorts of experience. The objects of scientific taxonomy are conceptual interpretations of specific phenomena, whereas Schopenhauer insists that the objects of sublime perception are non-perceptual, but still representational. There seems to be no particular reason to believe that there is the relationship between them that Schopenhauer claims, or that they cannot be understood more simply as  particular phenomenal experiences: scientific taxonomy can be accounted for as the use of a conceptual framework to impose order on phenomenal experiences, whilst sublime aesthetic experience can be understood in terms of temporary psychological integration which, whilst still involving particular limited sense experiences, temporarily breaks down the dualistic framework through which we habitually interpret them[20]. The distinction between these two types of experience is one I have already commented on in 3.f.ix in distinguishing Descartes’ conceptual “meditation” from religious experience of the type represented by Augustine.


Schopenhauer understands sublime aesthetic experience as the encounter of subject and object at their most general (unparticularised) level, where “the particular thing at one stroke becomes the Idea of its species, and the perceiving individual becomes the pure subject of knowing[21]. He seems to be pointing here to temporary experiences of integration, described in the Buddhist tradition as dhyŒna, of the kind which I discussed above in relation to Christian mysticism[22].

We lose ourselves entirely in this object…; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one, since the entire consciousness is filled and occupied by a single image of perception.[23]


Schopenhauer seems to regard this experience as one in which the highest and most general type of object is experienced, but it seems more accurate to suggest that it is a state in which the distinctions between subject and object are relatively (and temporarily) attenuated. The fact that we may have our eyes open, loosening our conceptual framework through the contemplation, say, of the grains of wood in a piece of furniture, or the movements of water in a fountain, does not mean that the experience is then necessarily one of the definitive objects "wood” or “water”, or indeed of any  definitive object. If we cease, at least to some extent, to apply our conceptual framework through which particulars are differentiated, to some extent we cease to experience objects. To put this another way in terms of the psychological model I have been using, the ego as wielder of concepts only separates subject and object in order to make distinctions (which further its desire to perpetuate itself), and in the relative absence of such egoistically-dominated conceptualised experience there is a limitation of the separation between subject and object.


Schopenhauer seems driven to his interpretation of sublime experiences in terms of Platonic Ideas as an outcome of the implications of his adherence to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. If phenomena are to be universally knowable there needs to be some medium by which we can perceive them, not in finite particulars, but in their infinite universality. Scientific investigation does not provide such a medium because of its merely indirect relationship to universals, which leaves room for error in any justification of universal Ideas through scientific investigation. Schopenhauer thus turned to the arts, for which he had a profound appreciation, to provide a privileged type of representation of the “most adequate” objective universe in the form of a direct experience of the Ideas. In this he followed the dualistic tradition of representationalism, and in particular the eternalist tradition of a search for a privileged type of representation for which could be claimed a relationship with the universal, on which a universal ethics could then be built. Whilst Plato and Hegel claimed to find this privileged representation in universal concepts, Schopenhauer was closer to the Christian tradition in locating it in a non-conceptual spiritual experience. Like Augustine, however, he could not resist imposing a conceptual interpretation on a relatively non-conceptual experience which bears no such interpretation.


In this sublime form of representation not only does the alleged object need to be understood as of a peculiar universal kind, but the subject has to be the “pure subject of knowledge, free from individuality and from servitude to the will[24]. Here appears a further relationship to the eternalist tradition: for despite Schopenhauer’s insistence on the general subservience of knowledge to the will, an exception now appears of some instances in which knowledge is independent of the will. Not only for this knowledge to be universal, but for it to be free of the will, it seems that it must consist in a representation which is sufficiently caused by pure impressions coming from outside, for any necessary causal contribution from the subject would prevent that purity of knowledge. Despite his earlier repudiation of any such pure representations, Schopenhauer is pushed into them by the assumption that the subject consists only of the ego and thus that there can be no relationship between the will of a subject and sublime experience.


iv)                Cosmic justice and freewill


The Principle of Sufficient Reason sets up what at first appears to be a completely monistic system whereby the universe is taken to be entirely explicable as the manifestation of one particular kind of force. Schopenhauer also claims that human beings can have direct access to knowledge of this fundamentally explicable nature. The next step in this line of argument in traditional eternalism is to claim that the essential nature of the universe is that it is just, or ruled by just forces, so that a universal ethical foundation can be derived from human knowledge of the essential nature. At first sight one might expect Schopenhauer not to pursue this approach, because of his pervasive “pessimism” about life in a universe dominated by the will, which he describes as “essentially suffering in many forms and a tragic state in every way”[25]. At first sight it appears that he merely wants to proclaim cosmic injustice. If this were solely the case Schopenhauer could still be accused of eternalism, for he would still be creating a foundationalism of universal value (even if this were purely negative) from the dogmatic belief that knowledge of the universe as a whole can be attained.


But Schopenhauer does not flinch from asserting, instead, that in fact the universe is just. The miseries of human life, Schopenhauer claims, are in some sense a fair requital for what human beings (as a whole) are like.

If we want to know what human beings, morally considered, are worth as a whole and in general, let us consider their fate as a whole and in general. This fate is want, wretchedness, misery, lamentation, and death. Eternal justice prevails; if they were not as a whole contemptible, their fate as a whole would not be so melancholy. In this sense we can say that the world itself is the tribunal of the world. If we could lay all the misery of the world in one pan of the scales, and all its guilt in the other, the pointer would certainly show them to be in equilibrium.[26]


This seems to indicate that in fact Schopenhauer recognises that his pessimism is subjective, at least in relation to this eternal justice. Even though he may have believed it to be true that human life can be accurately described as miserable in general, he did not believe this misery to be necessary to human life. Whilst his pessimism is thus dogmatic up to a point, beyond that point it is overtaken by an equally dogmatic optimism which reveals itself in his belief that the denial of the will can put an end to this misery.


However, Schopenhauer’s version of cosmic justice resembles that of Hegel and Marx in being holistic (meaning that justice is done to human beings as a whole, on average, rather than as individuals or groups) whilst being completely unlike theirs in being ahistorical. At this level, though, Schopenhauer’s justice consists only in “punishment” whilst Marx’s consists only in “reward”. It also resembles Marx’s in being apparently made compatible with determinism. Schopenhauer’s phenomenal determinism clearly follows from his presentation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in which human motives were included as determinable phenomenal experiences, but at the same time he insists that “the will as such is free”: though this freedom is only that of the whole will operating throughout the universe[27]. As with Marx, we can ask where the justice lies if it does not consist in a requital correlated to a choice, and to ask this is also to ask what makes the requital just (whilst Marx does not talk in terms of cosmic justice, he does, like Schopenhauer, assume the final requital to be a good one).


Schopenhauer’s solution to this difficulty is also similar to Marx’s, for he argues that we can attain freewill through a process which is in fact determined, making freewill and reward due to cosmic justice precisely the same thing. For Schopenhauer, though, the process through which we can attain freewill, like the determinism, is individuated, being the manifestation of the intelligible character (which exists outside time) within time as the empirical character. During our lives, though, we acquire knowledge of our intelligible character: knowledge which Schopenhauer calls the acquired character[28]. It is only through this knowledge that we attain noumenal freewill, through resignation towards our nature which results in denial of the will (which led us to falsely believe in our phenomenal freedom). As Schopenhauer puts it in one of his memorable images: “We are like entrapped elephants, which rage and struggle fearfully for many days, until they see that it is fruitless, and then suddenly offer their necks calmly to the yoke, tamed for ever”[29]. This knowledge, however, is itself determined and “is not to be forcibly arrived at by intention or design”. Schopenhauer compares its sudden and unexpected arrival to that of divine grace in the Christian tradition[30].


As with Marx, it is the fulfilment of our nature which provides the moral criterion by which the final reward can be known to be good, so that the only “choice” involved is that which is already pre-programmed in our natures. However, for Schopenhauer, reward is only provided in the individual form of happiness for those who completely deny the will, and is certainly not provided for all human beings, the mass of whom continue to suffer due to their enthralment to the will. Happiness is thus only available in Schopenhauer’s terms according to the determinations of character, but its value is guaranteed negatively because it consists in the absence of the misery engendered by the will, the universal completeness of which we have knowledge due to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The absence of a guaranteed misery is certainly as much of a basis of value as the presence of a guaranteed happiness.


Schopenhauer tries hard to avoid the cosmic justice assumptions of his predecessors in the eternalist tradition, but does not succeed because of the continued implications of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Because of this he continues to follow the Kantian dichotomy between determinism in the phenomenal realm and freewill in the noumenal realm, which drives him into a continued association between noumenal freewill and cosmic justice. The facts that he recognises this noumenal freewill to have no connection with the “elective decision” which we commonly assume to be freewill, and that the cosmic justice which requites our determined way of being rather than our chosen actions is not “just” in any way we can readily understand, makes no difference to the fact that Schopenhauer feels obliged to make freewill (in its sense as the absence of sufficient causation) a necessary condition for cosmic justice.


Schopenhauer’s error here is the scientistic one of assuming that because phenomena appear subject to the laws of science within our limited experience, this means that all phenomena are theoretically predictable, and therefore that phenomenal determinism is true. His sense of the degree of illusion attached to belief in phenomenal freewill may also have contributed to leading him to this conclusion. But in reaching this conclusion he did not take into account our ignorance of the nature of phenomenal choice, and assumed that the egoistic illusion of the existence of phenomenal freewill is wholly opposed to reality instead of merely a dogmatic assumption. In his treatment of the undivided noumenon (or will) he made the converse assumption that the noumenon as a whole is free and that any individual who truly realised their identity with the whole would also be free, regardless of the extent of our ignorance of the noumenon. The assumption that the ego has a wholly mistaken, rather than merely partial, view of the world is thus reflected in his view that the beliefs of the ego must be wholly denied to reach a true understanding. And without this denial of the will as a foundational value Schopenhauer would have no need to posit the existence of cosmic justice.

v)                  Ethical foundationalism


At the outset Schopenhauer claims not to have any prescriptive ethics based on a foundation, but to merely give a descriptive ethics. His descriptive ethics is an account of the meanings of the terms wrong, right, good and bad according to naturalistic criteria, which nevertheless do not imply any prescription. Schopenhauer insists that philosophical enquiry should take a “contemplative” rather than a prescriptive attitude and that virtue cannot be taught[31]. The basis of “wrong” he believes to be the denial of the will that appears in another, against which our natural moral sense protests[32]. “Right” is the mere omission of wrong[33]. “Good” “is essentially relative, and denotes the fitness or suitableness of an object to any definite effort of the will”[34] and “bad” the converse. It appears that all these moral terms, then, are merely instruments of the will. Schopenhauer does not offer us any reasons why we should behave rightly or be good, only an account of why he believes we are already motivated in this way, although these motivations may conflict with one another. Indeed, it seems we should not even seek any such final or perfect reason to be moral, because we will inevitably deceive ourselves: “absolute good is a contradiction; highest good, summum bonum, signifies the same thing, namely in reality a final satisfaction of the will, after which no fresh willing would occur….Such a thing cannot be conceived”[35].


Schopenhauer’s descriptive ethics thus appear at first to merely offer a self-conscious ethical coherentism, in which the ego merely pursues its own ends. Those ends do not necessarily result in immediate conflict between individuals, since longer-term and better-informed egoism results in the contractual agreement which forms the basis of law and the institution of the state[36]. He argues, however, that the rule of law is based on a different (descriptive) justification – that of preventing suffering – from that of social morality, which is concerned with preventing wrongs. For this reason he attacks Kant's view that the law is justified as an aspect of morality[37].


It is unclear, however, on what grounds he can do this without implicitly appealing to some higher-level prescription. Schopenhauer’s political philosophy as a whole (briefly expressed though it is) appears to appeal to the prescriptive idea that it is better for the ego to adopt long-term strategies in its own interest than not to do so, and that these strategies, resulting in political institutions, should be efficiently pursued according to reason, resulting in his view that hereditary monarchy is the best type of political system for our imperfect situation[38]. Schopenhauer’s political philosophy is thus perhaps not as far from Kant’s as he likes to believe, for he offers a contractarian argument typical of liberal forms of eternalism, despite the fact that, like Hobbes[39], he believes that a monarchical system of government actually fulfils the contract better than a liberal democratic one. He believes that the state is justified by the fact that it applies a rational use of political controls to prevent the suffering of wrong  rather than to promote virtue, but this nevertheless implies that the prevention of the suffering of wrong has a general moral justification which is of a higher grade than the mere immediate and short-term application of egoism.


This is one instance among many of a frustrated incrementality in Schopenhauer. He would like to have a prescriptive moral ground on which to claim that more subtle and rational uses of the ego are better than grosser irrational ones, but this is at odds both with his phenomenal determinism and with his view that the only prescriptive good (he consents to use such moral terminology only “metaphorically and figuratively”[40]) lies in the complete denial of the will. Another instance of such frustrated incrementality appears in his accounts of justice as a personal quality and of altruism[41], which he maintains arise from a degree of non-dual insight whereby an individual “makes less distinction than is usually made between himself and others”[42]. A discontinuity appears between the ethics of asceticism which directly deny the will and those which are merely altruistic, since on Schopenhauer’s previous account of descriptive ethics such altruism is merely a manifestation of the will and has no objective justification. He argues that such incremental altruism arises from intuitive knowledge, yet if such an altruist were to ever reflect on the intellectual justification for her actions she would find it non-existent because it still occurs within an egoistic framework of belief (which, on Schopenhauer’s account, comprises the whole psyche).


Like his eternalist predecessors, then, Schopenhauer only offers an ethical foundation for an absolute doctrine which appears applicable to no actual cases, and which cannot be extended incrementally to imperfect cases without undermining the justification. Beyond this there lies only a coherentism with no prescriptive moral power. In his case the absolute doctrine is the denial or renunciation of the will, which he claims arises through pure intuitive knowledge, despite the fact that this appears to leave it with no motive given Schopenhauer’s psychology. This point is made most clearly as Schopenhauer attempts to address this very contradiction:

When the principium individuationis is seen through, when the Ideas, and indeed the inner nature of the thing-in-itself, are immediately recognised as the same will in all, and the result of this knowledge is a universal quieter of willing, then the individual motives become ineffective, because the kind of knowledge that corresponds to them is obscured and pushed into the background by knowledge of a quite different kind. Therefore the character can never partially change, but must, with the consistency of a law of nature, realise in the particular individual the will whose phenomenon is in general and as a whole. But this whole, the character itself, can be entirely eliminated by the above-mentioned change of knowledge.[43]


In order to achieve this type of goodness, then, we must entirely eliminate our present characters and all the desires implicated in those characters. We must give up all claims to our own salvation, but depend on what appears to be divine grace coming entirely from without. The ego must entirely give up its reasons, and rely on intuitive feelings, for all reasons are egoistic.


Much of what Schopenhauer says here, including his appeals to the religious traditions of asceticism, might be true were it not for his implicit identification of the ego with the psyche. For such an ego that he envisages, a monolithic expression of the will and its illusions, has no means of developing or changing itself, and can only be accepted or denied as it is.  Schopenhauer refers to many religious figures on the assumption that they have successfully followed the ascetic practices that he recommends[44] and which are recommended by the eternalist tradition, without considering that their spiritual achievements, insofar as they are real ones, may be due to practical traditions which do not purely advocate the suppression of the will but offer ways of working to skilfully channel  its energies. This can be illustrated in Schopenhauer’s appeal to aesthetic experience as a precursor of permanent ascetic bliss.

When we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares….And we know that these moments, when, delivered from the fierce pressure of the will, we emerge, as it were, from the heavy atmosphere of the earth, are the most blissful that we experience. From this we can infer how blessed must be the life of a man whose will is silenced not for a few moments, as in the enjoyment of the beautiful, but for ever, indeed completely extinguished, except for the last glimmering spark that maintains the body and is extinguished with it.[45]


This whole passage (with the substitution of “ego” for “will”) could be taken as an expression of the Buddhist tradition and of the relationship between dhyana, the temporary attainment of a sublime state, and enlightenment. Yet on closer examination the passage bristles with the vocabulary of passivity (“are raised”, “delivered”) and of extinction (“is silenced”, “extinguished”) which, even if it does not exactly misrepresent an experience which is in any case of such subtlety, emphasises an entirely ascetic interpretation of the experience described and thus misrepresents the way in which it was achieved. A contemplator of whatever spiritual tradition must set out to contemplate and maintain a continuous but subtle effort to remain in contemplation: without such effort the experience could not have taken place. But if the full context of his experience is not taken into account, and it accordingly is understood in purely passive terms, it becomes merely misleading as a guide to enlightenment, conveying in conceptual terms only the idea of extinction rather than any relationship to positive values. The very idea of enjoyment of the experience of enlightenment, or of it being blissful or beautiful, itself summons an egoistic motivation which is at odds with Schopenhauer’s account of it and which indicates the need for a more balanced and incremental account.


Schopenhauer’s one-sided interpretation of religious experience is accompanied by an irrationalism which gives the strongest grounds for calling him a “Romantic”. Because of their relationship to the ego, which he believes should be overcome, concepts are of no relevance to his prescriptive ethics. “A saint may be full of the most absurd superstition, or, on the other hand, may be a philosopher; it is all the same”[46]. In this way Schopenhauer denies that his prescriptive ethics can be applied to any judgement whatsoever and asserts the complete irrelevance of the degree of truth of ones beliefs to ethical judgement. Particularly, this means that the consequences of ones actions need never be considered, and no allowance for the extent of ones ignorance need ever be made. It even makes Schopenhauer’s own work fatuous.


The most important point here, though, is that what Schopenhauer appears to recommend – the denial of the will – is impossible because self-contradictory. Denial is itself an act of the will. The attempt to follow this doctrine can lead only to alienation, in which a abstract idea of how one can deny ones own nature fortifies itself against all other desires in the psyche. The development of such an abstract dogmatic idea depends, in its turn, upon beliefs about its foundational justification through the premature holism of Schopenhauer’s view of the will and its denial.


Schopenhauer had diverse influences on figures like Nietzsche, Wagner and Wittgenstein: but more important is the tendency in the West that he represents and articulates, a tendency which might be called Romantic irrationalism. This tendency has flowered most particularly since the sixties in the shape of the New Age movement. Like Schopenhauer, the New Age depends on wealth and leisure and a background of science and successful capitalism which it can then attempt to transcend and reject. It stresses individualism, aesthetic experience and a theoretical asceticism, which it tries to mould into a new kind of absolute value to replace institutional Christianity, but which never achieves rational consistency because of its irrationalism. It thrives on the superficial appropriation of oriental religion, or of any other non-Western culture, but, as with Schopenhauer, such an appropriation could not take place without the certainties of Western dualism to which it can be attached.


The dangers of asceticism in the context of superficial orientalism can be illustrated by an account given by Sangharakshita in a public talk of some of the misuse of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no self) and the alienating use of meditation he found in Buddhist circles on first returning to England in 1964 after twenty years in India.

I remember on one occasion I was taken to a certain meditation centre…and I was shown some people who were meditating and had been meditating for several weeks….I had quite a shock, because they seemed to me just like zombies. They just weren’t there at all. They were so completely alienated from themselves. And I found quite a number of people in this state in London after having practised mindfulness, awareness and so on in this sort of alienated way. They just made themselves mentally ill, and some of them had landed up in mental hospitals. They had just been not meditating but developing alienated awareness.[47]


These unfortunates appear to have been the victims of a garbled Schopenhauerian understanding of Buddhism, practised without regard for the Middle Way, understood as the mere denial of the ego. In seeking a new religion, perhaps predictably, they had not managed to avoid the weight of dualism, dogmatism and alienation found in their culture but encountered only a more extreme and harmful expression of them.


[1] Schopenhauer (1974) p.166 & 168

[2] Lukács (1980) p.193

[3] Magee (1983) p.11

[4] ibid. p.13

[5] ibid. p.15

[6] Schopenhauer (1969) p.5

[7] ibid. p.99

[8] See 2.c.iv

[9] Magee (1983) p.141-3

[10] Schopenhauer (1966) p.203-4

[11] Schopenhauer (1969) p.275-8

[12] Schopenhauer (1974) p.1: Schopenhauer’s emphases. The Latin phrase (Ockham’s Razor) translates “The number of entities must not be increased unnecessarily”.

[13] Magee (1983) p.230

[14] Though the  possibility of a causal-descriptive approach to morality is not ruled out by Kant, he does not in fact follow through this possibility: it is left to Schopenhauer to do so on similar premises.

[15] Schopenhauer (1974) p.32-3

[16] Schopenhauer (1969) p.174-5

[17] ibid. p.183

[18] ibid. p.139-152

[19] ibid. p.178

[20] See 5.f.i

[21] ibid. p.179 (Schopenhauer’s emphases)

[22] see above

[23] Schopenhauer (1969) p.178-9

[24] ibid. p.180

[25] ibid. p.323

[26] ibid. p.352

[27] ibid. p.286-7

[28] ibid. p.301-7

[29] ibid. p.306

[30] ibid. p.404

[31] ibid. p.271

[32] ibid. p.334-9

[33] ibid. p.339-342

[34] ibid. p.360

[35] ibid. p.362

[36] ibid. p.343

[37] ibid. p.345

[38] ibid. p.343-4

[39] see Hobbes (1909) chs.17 & 18

[40] Schopenhauer (1969) p.362

[41] ibid. p.367-374

[42] ibid. p.372 (my emphasis)

[43] ibid. p.403

[44] ibid. p.378-397

[45] ibid. p.390

[46] ibid. p.383

[47] Sangharakshita: from lecture 84 “From Alienated Awareness to Integrated Awareness” (p.10), transcribed by FWBO Transcriptions Unit


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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