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the daily review, tuesday, sept. 15

Hans-Georg Moeller

Is Western "morality" a sickness? Nietzsche certainly thought so. In The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality, Hans-Georg Moeller, formerly of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., now a senior lecturer in philosophy at University College Cork, agrees with that Dionysian advocate of the will to power. "Hardly any political purge, religious war, or ethnic cleansing," Moeller writes, "was not justified, embellished, or inspired by great moral values."

Moreover, "Robespierre, Hitler and Pol Pot all acted in the name of virtue." And: "People who heard the name Adolf Hitler once felt the same intensity of moral awe that we feel nowadays when we hear the name Nelson Mandela."

This is salutary - as The Moral Fool is salutary and provocative - but it does leave unanswered questions. Hitler and Mandela surely contemplated different ends. Did Hitler know his actions were evil and merely claim that he was acting virtuously? From the viewpoint of U.S. philosopher Berel Lang (overlooked here), Hitler knew of and rejoiced in his criminality.

Moeller, I hasten to add, is not "against" morality. Nor is he "for" it - hence the "amorality" of the subtitle. He would like, if I understand him correctly, a morally neutral ethics. Morality, he reminds us, is a tool, like an axe. One could no more abolish morality than axes. Much, then, depends on the axeman, much also on the observer. Was, say, Jack the Ripper a moralist? (The witticism was George Bernard Shaw's, not Moeller's, but it's pertinent all the same.)

Observing - as Moeller does - that "ethics" and "morality" originate from Greek and Latin words that mean "custom" seems bound to embark us on a relativistic trajectory. Times change; so do customs. However, The Moral Fool draws inspiration not from postmodernism or relativism, but from the religions of the Far East, Daoism and Zen Buddhism. (Moeller is the author of The Philosophy of the Daodejing and Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory.) The Daoist moral fool, like most of us, according to Moeller, does not get out of bed in order to have a moral day.

Alas, getting out of bed isn't exactly a moral decision. At times, it may not even be a good one.

"Who says that morality is good?" The Moral Fool inquires. "Why do people say this? How is morality used?" Dangerously, Moeller answers, echoing Daoism's second foundational text, the Zhuangzi.

Of course, he isn't the first to complain that "moral" points of view can lead to fanaticism. At the very least, supposed morality - public and private - promotes hypocrisy, at worst the potentially murderous absurdity that The Moral Fool diagnoses as "moral pathology."

Moeller is never more Nietzschean than in his view of Kant's categorical imperative. That "Moloch of abstraction," as Nietzsche called it, Moeller renders as "one should always act in such a way that the maxim of one's will can always be held as a principle of common law." Thus, Moeller cites Kant's "moral" defence - in The Metaphysics of Morals - of a mother's murdering her "illegitimate" child. It wouldn't be criminal, Kant held, because at that time sex outside of marriage was unlawful. Therefore the child couldn't legally exist. Moeller dismisses Kant's "puritan ethic" (the sage of Königsberg notoriously compared homosexuality to bestiality) as "grotesque."

Another grotesquerie was Jeremy Bentham's "felicific calculus," by which Bentham modestly proposed that the state measure happiness. The Utilitarian philosopher also wanted to investigate weightlifting prowess. Knowing how much weight a man could lift would establish his pain threshold, so that the morality of potentially painful public policies could be scientifically assessed.

Even a short book like The Moral Fool might have touched on the discrepancy between the Marxist dream and the Stalinist nightmare in Russia. (Moeller mentions Stalin's proscription of certain musical works in the same sentence as he refers to the Taliban's destruction of Buddha's statues at Bamyan.) Moeller observes of Paul Bernardo, the St. Catharines serial killer, that "there is no law against being evil and no such law is needed." This nicely made point bears on the separation of ethics from the law. It may be of some value to those who argue that terrorists ("evil-doers") deserve special legislation.

Canadian readers will be moved, I think, by the brief discussion of the Robert Latimer case, "a contemporary version of the Antigone problem," according to Moeller, in that Antigone, in Sophocles's great tragedy, acted out of love for her brother, as did Latimer for his daughter when he killed her. Latimer found himself in the Kafkaesque situation, before the National Parole Board, of having to admit that he broke the law (which he never denied), but also that his action was immoral. When he refused to concede the point, the board found that he lacked remorse and denied him parole.

Moeller's contention that no one goes to jail for parking offences bears correction. The late Robert Zend, poet and radio producer, served time in the Don Jail (on weekends) for the wedges of tickets he accumulated outside the old Radio Arts building on Toronto's Jarvis Street. Zend, in a paradox that should delight Moeller, declared that he was free to go to jail in Canada, whereas in his native Hungary under communism …

As a study in comparative ethics, The Moral Fool is sure to be prescribed reading for graduate seminars. Moeller's discussion of just-war theories alone probably merits the price, though in war (as everywhere in our post-9/11 world), Hobbes rules: "One calleth wisdom what another calleth fear; and one cruelty what another justice."

Novelist Chris Scott philosophizes from St. Joseph Island, Ont.

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