Ruether and Nietzsche:
December 17, 1993
Problems of Religious Thought
Bob: Is this where you wanted us to come?
- A clearing in a small forest near an institution of higher learning. The sun is peaking over the trees, drying the fall leaves that are beginning to cover the ground. There is a tree near the edge of the clearing with no low hanging branches. Enter Darla and Bob, typical-looking young people Both are attired in torn, faded jeans and both are wearing a smattering of the obligatory college pins for various causes. The two of them seat themselves at the base of the tree.
Darla: Yes. Isn't it gorgeous? I need to come here every so often, just to get away from everything.
Bob: I guess it's alright out here...
Darla: Yeah, but don't you just love it? The air has that cool, crisp freshness to it, we're surrounded by a chorus of chirping birds and chattering squirrels, the leaves are beautiful, turning all colours and falling around us, and the sun is shining to warm us.
Bob: Yeah, those things are all nice, I guess, but it's not without its drawbacks.
Darla: Like what?
Bob: Well, I'm cold, for one, and my butt is wet. And there are bugs all over the place. God damn it, there's one there. A goddamned bee.
Darla: Don't kill it! Just brush it off.
Bob: What the hell? It's too late now, I just crushed it.
Darla: That was stupid Bob.
Bob: Why shouldn't I have killed it?
Darla: Because you didn't need to; it had, in itself, a valid purpose, a life of its own.
Bob: Are you then saying what I did was wrong Darla? Was what I did wrong?
Darla: Well, if you want to look at it that way, I guess you were wrong.
Bob: Ah-hah! All "evil" acts are motivated by the drive to preservation or, more exactly, by the individual's intention of procuring pleasure and avoiding displeasure; so motivated, however, they are not evil.1
Darla: I never said 'evil' Bob, you're taking what I said too seriously.
Bob: So you're not willing to engage me on that question?
Darla: What question do you think you're raising?
Bob: Was what I did an evil, or wrong act?
Darla: You just said that it doesn't matter whether they are so labeled, because such actions are motivated by a sense of self-preservation.
Bob: And you would disagree?
Darla: Besides thinking that your general preservation wasn't threatened by that bee -
Bob: Let's say I'm allergic.
Darla: Besides that,
Bob: Darla, admit it, we do not call even intentional harming immoral under all circumstances. Like me, one could unhesitatingly kill a fly intentionally, for example, merely because one does not like its buzzing, Similarly, we punish the criminal intentionally and do him harm so as to protect ourselves and society. Darla, all morality allows the intentional causing of harm in the case of self-defense: that is, when it is a matter of self-preservation2
Darla: I don't think that's the important thing in this case Bob.
Bob: You're just arguing the traditional Judeo-Christian point of view. I want to protect myself, live for myself, free myself from the chains of commitment to things that are artificial constraints applied by a society that doesn't care to address Bob's needs in the here and now. I see no need to heed your high-handed moralistic code.
Darla: I don't have any high-handed moralistic code Bob, at least not in the sense I think you mean. In fact, I believe that the Christian definition of sin has served to promote, more than to avoid3, the type of thing I would consider wrong.
Bob: But upon what foundation is it wrong?
Darla: Why don't we invite in that young man over there to listen to our argument and see what he has to say?
Bob: I know that guy, that's Neil. I'll call him over.
Neil: Hey guys, how's it going?
Darla: Well, actually, we're in the midst of an argument.
Bob: Yeah, if you're interested, our argument started when Darla labeled my killing of a bee evil and wrong -
Darla: When I agreed to label your action evil and wrong.
Bob: Yes, anyways, she was trying to pin conventional morality and custom on me!
Neil: Ahhh. I see. You mean you see yourself as being evil in the sense of not to act in accordance with custom, to practice things not sanctioned by custom, to resist tradition.4
Bob: Exactly. You see my point perfectly. You understand Darla? You were trying to define my actions in terms of what has been wrong by conventional morality. But we must define a new morality.
Darla: Okay Bob, we can define a new morality, but first I want to demonstrate why you are wrong. Your action I labeled wrong in the tradition of a different, perhaps a new morality, not the traditional ethics I imagine you're thinking of.
Bob: What? You mean you're beyond "thou shalt not kill" and stuff? All that Judeo-Christian - Western-Civilization stuff. But hey - check it out - basically, we do not regard animals as moral beings5 - pretty much regardless of what eithical tradition you're talking about.
Darla: Bob, you're arguing from the wrong end of tradition; the lasting effects of the scientific revolution and the tradition it created in Western culture dictate that all innate spiritual elements having been eliminated from nature, human spirit need no longer interact with nature as a fellow being, Instead Bob, people can see themselves, like the clock-maker God, as transcendent to it, knowing it and ruling it from outside6. Just like you Bob, deciding the fate of that bee. So, rather than rejecting that tradition, you are affirming it by your actions.
Bob: But isn't it true that the earliest, most important, founding fathers of this tradition we are currently discussing and engaged in said, in essence, that once we have been united to the life power of God, we must indeed struggle to walk in a path of conduct that is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and self-control, and to avoid their negative counterparts? Doesn't the apostle Paul, finally think that the solution to evil is to free the self from the 'fleshly' body subject to decay7? I'm not talking about the scientific revolution, I'm talking about the fundamental underpinnings of your moral qualm with my action.
Darla: Bob, they may very well have said those things, and if I was judging your actions by simply those standards, I might indeed have proclaimed them as wrong from a literal reading of the apostles. But the culmination of their philosophy has left us with the evaluation of mortal life as evil and the fruit of sin and this in turn has lent itself to an earth-fleeing ethic and spirituality. Furthermore, Bob, this has undoubtedly contributed very centrally to the neglect of the earth, to the denial of our commonalty with plants and animals.8 The text itself has redeeming elements in it, for instance the Hebraic understanding of evil as unjust relations between peoples, and the destructive effect this has on the earth9. But due to poor interpretation over the last several thousand years the tradition that developed out of some of those enlightened words you yourself quoted has ended up quite one-sided and even damaging - especially to the earth, and women and animals (or yes, even insects) as they relate to it. So, by deciding the fate of that bee, you were simply following in that practiced tradition that you seem so ready to flee.
Neil: What do you say to that Bob?
Bob: I say what I said before, We do not regard animals as moral beings. So why should I care, according to any standard?
Neil: Bob, you say We do not regard animals as moral beings. But do you suppose the animals regard us as moral beings10?
Bob: Aww, give me a break...
Darla: Regardless of that, let me ask you -
Bob: Hold on. It's my turn to question you Darla.
Darla: It's no one's turn Bob, but if you must.
Bob: Thank you. On a slightly different tack, would you two agree with me that the origin of custom lies in two ideas: 'the community is worth more than the individual' and 'an enduring advantage is to be preferred to a transient one'?
Darla: I don't have a problem with that.
Neil: Nor I.
Bob: Because, if so, it follows that the enduring advantage of the community is to take unconditional precedence over the advantage of the individual, especially over his momentary well-being but also over his enduring advantage and even over his survival11.
Darla: Bob, I would argue that if I had to establish a new morality, the success of custom and community would not undermine an individuals momentary well-being, his enduring advantage, and would in fact serve to properly ensure his survival. You're basing your perception of the purpose of custom and community on dated, destructive patriarchal conceptions of customs and community.
Bob: But custom and its suppression of the individual is what we all must fight against! Regardless of the morality, custom and community only serve to oppress the life of the individual. We must live out of the instinct for life!
Darla: Precisely Bob. Life as a whole, life of the planet, life of the community-
Bob: Life of that community which would suppress us with its laws and codes and ethics and morality!
Darla: Not if we abandon the flawed codes that are currently suppressing the individual and destroying community and habitat.
Bob: But why does any of this mean I shouldn't be able to kill that bee if it bothers me?
Darla: Because Bob, in this system of interdependency, any absolutization of competition that causes one side to be wiped out means that the other sides of the relation thereby destroy themselves as well.12
Bob: Darla, I never said I wanted to eradicate bees. The crux of the matter is that the bee stood to sting me, and by nature, what harms me is something evil13.
Darla: That's where you're wrong again. The bee was not going to sting you out of malice, out of a desire to do you pain. It would only have stung you to protect itself if it felt itself in danger. Regardless, Bob, you must know that cooperation and interdependency are the primary principles of ecosystems14. Cooperation and interdependency between humans and nature, between humans and humans. Life is sustained by biotic relationality, in which the whole attains a plenitude through mutual limits in interdependency. When one part of the life community exalts itself at the expense of the other parts, life is diminished for the exploited 15. You have to admit that this is true. And deciding that what creatures should and can live and die is definitely a case of one part of the life community exalting itself.
Bob: Wait, hold on. I can't believe this. Are you telling me that by killing that one bee I am putting the ecosystem at risk?
Darla: Bob, remember, you're the one who declared "we must define a new morality". If that's what we are trying to do here, then we can't think in terms of individual Bobs killing individual bees.
Bob: Okay, I can see that.
f o o t n o t e s
1 Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, page 99
2 Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, page 102
3 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia & God, page 141
4 Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, page 96
5 Nietzsche, Daybreak, page 333
6 Ruether, page 197
7 Ruether, page 131
8 Ruether, page 139
9 Ruether, page 142
10 Nietzsche, Daybreak, page 333
11 Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims, page 89
12 Ruether, page 56
13 Nietzsche, Daybreak, page 102
14 Ruether, page 56
15 Ruether, page 141