The Grid


One of the peculiar imbecilities of our time is the grid of morality that we have placed on human behavior: so that every act of man must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and a longitude of wrong—in exact minutes, seconds, and degrees! (Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind)


Nietzsche spoke of the need and the privilege and the burden of the Superman to create values, even though he will have to do the job pursued by the hoots and laughter (if not the thrown bottles and bombs) of the conventionally “good.” One of the major reasons the good folks hate the Superman for doing this is the same reason the Athenians hated Socrates and the Sophists: the Superman alerts everyone to the fact that the jig is up: one cannot any longer simply take for granted that the conventional ways are absolutes and the only right way to proceed. The Sophists and Socrates, like the Superman, have flown high enough to observe how all the ant-colonies of the nations, the tribes, and the peoples each regards its own code as eternal law. They cannot all be right, and exactly none of them has any reason to deify their law-givers, to absolutize their laws.

There may be nothing wrong with the status quo, as some of the Sophists readily admitted. If the social code “ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But they were hated anyway for undermining the eternal inviolability of the local absolutes. They had implicitly shattered the stone tables of the Law by denying their uniqueness, their divine origin and imperishability. The mystique had been dispelled. Nor can one entirely blame people for getting mad at this. The elders of society may already suspect the purely human, ad hoc nature of society’s laws. But the myth of Moses on the mountain (or Shamash or Manu; take your pick) must needs be perpetuated, lest the common citizen hear this secret; he may rejoice to know that there is no Law-giving God who will punish their infractions. There is always danger in the truth and greater danger in the revelation of the truth. Only the Superman dares it. Only the Superman dares reveal that the laws, the ethics, the rules are only bits of paper.

Only he, because he who would subvert the old is equally obliged to replace it with the new. And do not remind him that, if he succeeds, he himself will one day be elevated as a totem, his insights frozen into laws all must unthinkingly obey. Knowing that is the crucifixion of the Superman, the self-sacrifice of Purusha, the Primal Man of the Upanishads, who gives his life to create the world.

What is the challenge of the creation of value? It is basically that to create value is to try to impose upon the stubborn chaos of the world an orderly blueprint which is alien to the original. We are like settlers on a vast, new continent having the job of carving out a habitat in our own image, as far as we can. The natural terrain does not readily yield itself to such treatment, such strip mining. We must hack and saw until the terrain becomes amenable to human life and society. It is like “terraforming” an alien world.

And that goal gives us the big clue as to the agenda that ought to dictate our terraforming: as ethicist Paul Lehmann used to call it, “making and keeping human life human.” Contra the Clarence Darrow-analog in Inherit the Wind, it is arbitrary but not imbecilic to impose a grid onto the natural chaos of human behavior. It is not arbitrary to realize, as the first makers of laws must have, that the constants of human nature (the things everybody seems to need, including the security to pursue and enjoy them) dictate certain limitations upon the free exercise of lust, the free sway of individual will. We seem to be social animals who need to live in community, and we just cannot do that if we spend all our time awaiting the next attack, wondering if we will be able to fend it off, or whether our nemeses have created sharper spears than ours. Even the thief wants not to have to worry over the safety of his possessions. In the end he may see it is better to do his part and stop stealing.

But no one can deny a certain degree of arbitrariness to the thing. This is why we will never succeed in convincing one another of either position in the abortion debate, not to mention other, even trickier questions of bio-medical ethics. There just does not seem to be a clear-cut “right” answer in the nature of things, as one might expect if the world were designed to work according to neat, tidy rules. Likewise, the fact that we constantly face choices between “lesser evils” shows how ill-fitting our grid is. Yet we must do our best to lock it down onto the seething world we face.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the arbitrary character of our moral coordinates is the matter of criminal moral responsibility. A rapist and/or murderer, a child-molester, etc., goes on trial. Up pipe the defense lawyers with psychiatric testimony that the poor monster was passively put together, like the Frankenstein Monster (and with just the same moral obliviousness) by anonymous social forces, piece by piece. It isn’t his fault, poor guy, that he raped and murdered that girl! For argument’s sake I will agree. That means that justice is a fiction that does not really and truly fit the world we find ourselves in. The abused is fated to become an abuser, so why punish him? But can we let him off the hook? There is a concrete need to protect our wives, sisters, daughters, ourselves, from his depredations, even if he is demon-possessed while he does his deeds. The predator must be treated as if justice were just. Fairness does not exist intrinsically in the world. We have to create it, safeguard it, navigate by its dictates—even if it is in large measure a fiction, a legal fiction. We must work, case by case, at creating a world of justice and fairness. And that means to live as if we lived in it already. The felon must be repelled or killed, even if he acts as a robot programmed by heredity and environment.

Do you quail at that vision of things? Would you rather believe the Grand Inquisitor and his fairy tales? Then you have no part in the advent of the Superman.


So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
September 2008


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