Gehlen’s Moral & Hypermoral

Moral und Hypermoral (1969) is the final work of German philosopher Arnold Gehlen (1904–1976), today somewhat forgotten except among German philosophy students and niche conservatives. I confess that I started reading him myself only recently, obviously far too late. He’s well worth a recommendation, and in this spirit I append a translation of the beginning of the third chapter of Moral und Hypermoral (p.31f). The similarities to the critique of prescriptive ethics popularized by one of my favorite blogs, Helian Unbound, are striking. Coming the perspective of sociology and history, Gehlen perceived the same evident conflict between human moral instincts and complex modern societies as those starting from pre-historical evolutionary biology. Read for yourself:

[The previous chapters on ancient Greece and Rome] showed how the objective situation of far-ranging empires and trade connections could be answered with the ethos of “humanitarianism,” then appearing for the first time. This ethos was developed and propagated in certain circles of intellectuals, as one would call them today, who starting from a lack of social position combined their insights with a lust for power and public relevance. The transition of culture to larger units appears to have engendered political and consequential moral innovations, for the exclusivity of polis patriotism was obsolete, or condemned its remaining adherents to irrelevance. A new ethos now streamed into the wide vessel of global communication and great powers, whose spokesmen were pacifists and cosmopolitans able to give the impression as if the Weltgeist spoke from their thin voices. […]

The conflict of these two “value systems” […] prompts the assumption that man is imbued with a plurality of moral instances whose development is determined by the sum of the present objective circumstances. So we contradict the abstract ethics of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire’s dictum in the Dictionnaire Philosophique, “There is only one moral, just as there is only one geometry.” Rather, there can very well be multiple independent final roots of ethical behavior, just like there are multiple independent senses which can cooperate or not. We do not only believe in a plurality of moral authorities but final authorities; and to forestall any idea of their supernatural origin we shall speak of “social regulations.” We cannot think of them but as instinct-like dispositions which roughly predetermine the harmonies and conflicts of social life, whereby the density and diversity of their real unfolding depends on countless material, intellectual, traditional, and other factors, as is generally the case for human instinctual residues. These can anywhere enter relationships of mutual dissonance or inhibition, and so there exists between the final “roots” of ethos likewise a latent tension which escalates into conflict in challenging situations. And these conflicts can manifest in the same heart.

A science attempting to present the diverse forms of ethos would be called “ethics” and must know above all that a ruling uniform ethos, i.e. one that relativizes, subordinates, or excludes other forms, cannot come into existence without a ruling class that has proclaimed and enforced its own ethos.

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