The Concept of ‘Value-Neutrality’

The Concept of ‘Value-Neutrality’ (the mundane version of beyond good and evil)

            The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, so disturbing to human complacency yet so inescapable, is nothing but a recognition of these oppositions, and of the consequent necessity to accept that every important individual action, indeed life as a whole, if it is not to slip by like a merely natural process but to be lived consciously, is a series of ultimate decisions, by means of which the soul, as in Plato, chooses its own destiny, in the sense of the meaning of what it does and is. (Weber, 1978:84 [1913]).

                The contemporary exhortation to ‘own’ one’s own actions cleaves to this same sensibility; that in choosing this or that, I am not only expressing the combined state of both my consciousness and my conscience, but am also developing each of them in this direction or that. ‘Breaking bad’ or ‘good’, I may, in the end, become a very different person than I had been, or that I ever imagined myself to be. And what all of this ‘means’ is thence also decided in a sense for me, even though I was always myself at its ongoing helm.

            This individuated ethic of responsibility and self-consciousness is placed, however, in a much wider discussion of the place of value judgments in the social sciences, which is Weber’s topic in his 1913 article. As such, it seems quite out of place, since the ‘moral sciences’ are so not so much because they present a morality of any kind but rather because their chief task is to examine human decisions in the sphere of social interaction and history; in a word, the space wherein ‘morality’ however conflicted and thus denuded of any connotation of the transcendental, plays itself out.

            Weber is reacting to the odd conflict between romanticist notions of ‘extra-moral’ acts, those seen to be removed in some way from the spectrum of good and evil, and what at the time were the ultra-modern conceptions of deep structures which, almost by definition, were ‘pre-moral’ in nature. The first is definitively engaged by Nietzsche’s famed conception of acts of love, which ‘always take place beyond good and evil’. The second include the two most important discursive concepts of the 19th century, evolution and the unconscious. It is well known that Nietzsche regretted Darwin, while at the same time presaging Freud in many of the latter’s most innovative conceptions, a fact spoken to by Freud himself, in a letter to Bickel of June 28, 1931. Nietzsche immediately understood the true radicality of organismic evolution, and while popular commentaries mocked the idea that we should be ‘related’ to apes and the church lamented the loss of creation and design – in fact, evolution does not murder a potential metaphysical God, for it does not account for any definite ‘beginning’ to the cosmic drama – Nietzsche recognized that it was the fact of evolution’s non-teleological basis that constituted its most threatening issue. In a word, evolution has no ultimate purpose. From the perspective of organismic development, consciousness is itself nothing more than a happenstance Gestalt.

            In the very same year as Darwin’s ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871), appeared, Nietzsche penned his most important early essay, ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense’, which remains one of the great short pieces of modernity. In it, he brings to full light the intractable ateleology of life itself. His trenchant statements surrounding the sentiment of life having utterly no purpose gained for him a mistaken reputation for nihilism. But Nietzsche, unlike Darwin and much less begrudgingly than Freud – ‘Oceanic feelings? Oh please. Well, maybe in art we can find a temporary salve…’ – spent the rest of his working life, and perhaps even beyond it in his own challenged imagination, trying to create a new morality, a new manner by which humanity, now godless and finite, could embrace with the same spiritual vigour and sense of purpose as it did the ‘old god of morals’ Himself.

            Zarathustra is, of course, Nietzsche’s major answer to the forsaken gospels. It is one of the German language’s greatest literary works, and remains a difficult read today, given its alchemy of romanticist and post-modern metaphors. At once it reaches back beyond the new agrarian trinity of world systems, but only to heave with some Über-manic forcefulness this classical sensibility far into an extra-human future. It is the new mythology; at once a demythology of the history of mythic thought and as well a prophecy regarding what cultural evolution would have to accomplish in order to ‘create’ the new Man. Needless to say, the Reich picked up the rhetoric without the ethic, and the result was neither evolutionary nor revolutionary.

            Is it any wonder then that Weber should be struck with this apparent contradiction? A keen student of Nietzsche himself, unworried that the iconoclastic thinker would pre-empt his own ideas, Weber pursued the problem from a different angle. If the cosmos, and thus all life which emanated from it had no final purpose, no ultimate meaning in itself, this suggested that such abstract conceptions which fulfilled a structural function in human consciousness, including both evolution and the unconscious, could only be value-neutral in themselves. The usual move, a century before, was to elevate the human being into the sole creator of meaningfulness, and this even within the individual life. This is romanticism in a nutshell, and this view still has some smaller merit, given that each of us faces this self-same challenge and yet is alone in the task of fulfilling it. But Weber was much more concerned with the meaning of culture and consciousness alike. The singular person could be left to her own devices, for anyone with half an imagination should be able to become one’s own Schiller or Goethe.

            It was a different question for culture. This question became so pressing that it was the Reich, once again, which took it upon itself to answer it once and for all. The ‘final solution’ to the problem of Kultur took on a grotesque form; in its irrational idyll of idealism, a form just as horrific as the death camps were in the material realm. With one exception; the oddly petit-bourgeois taste of the Nazi elites. For Weber, it was the piano itself that was the quintessential bourgeois instrument, and though it had generated many great composer and virtuosos, its inherent limits – mitigated and vastly extended of course by modern synthetic keyboards – created a framework within which art was supposed to not only take place, but thence also to be confined. The ear could not hear that 89th key. It was as if murdering 88 persons for their ‘degenerate’ status could be justified because the next one just might be the bridge to the Overman. This lurid outlook has its roots in the idea of the elect, the separation of the wheat from the chaff, and the caution regarding throwing pearls before swine. At the same time, we are told not to mock those with ‘little faith’.

            Weber was unimpressed with these sorts of exegetical contradictions. He was fully aware of the modern condition, at the very beginning of our own historical period. The very next year after his article appeared in fact saw the end of Bourgeois culture, its dreams of progress and its fantasy of the white man’s burden. And so, at the end of his working career, it is Nietzsche who returns to haunt the newly uncertain future of humanity as a whole. Life in the abstract, Weber suggests, is certainly value-neutral, and so our intent to study it in all of its manifold experience, must also begin with this understanding. But lives as lived by persons are the very crucible of value; we do make our own meaningfulness, even if more obviously, we make what are in fact cultural meanings, not of our own invention but rather bequeathed to us by history, our own.

            The advent of subjective meaningfulness in the ethical tradition may be found in the Pauline texts, but there it is encountered out of a rejection of the world, resentment towards its abstract, mythic values and their ability to rationalize unjust valuation in the living world – which is exactly what the Reich repeated in its regression to these values – and thus it is truncated, never truly explored. In Freud, rational subjectivity is sabotaged by an omnipresent depth of psyche, which performs itself in a language that attests to its own value-neutrality. In a casual sense, the unconscious doesn’t ‘care’ about our actions in the world. As an aside, this is also a potential caution that can be issued to the fashionable field of psychedelic therapy, wherein substances are used to temporarily mute the default network which functions akin to the Freudian ego. Is the mind authenticating itself by removing the source of repression or has it merely found a less expensive and more immediate way of experiencing its idiomatic id?

            However that may be, it is at least clear that when we attempt to incite or imagine value in the spaces of ateleological thought, the results are grim indeed. Beautification of the world through violence is just one such outcome. Resurrecting ancient social norms as if they could replace the lost morality is another. Fine if the ancient Hebrew whipped his eight-year-old child two millennia ago, we can’t do anything about that; not fine if the evangelist does the same to his fifteen-year-old today. And just there, we can take the same action as we took against the Reich, and for precisely the same reason. What Weber’s analysis shows us is that, at the very least in complementary adjunct to Nietzsche’s extramoral hyper-romanticism, it is rather the mundane sphere with its amoral social locations which are likely more important to critically examine. The personal soul cannot in fact ‘choose its destiny’ amid such meaningless and purposeless options. I would further add that mundanity must be so adjusted well before the quest for the Overman can begin, for no such bridge can be built if the near side of our ethical chasm does not even exist.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.