A third morality

Morality is about sacrificing one’s self-interest for the sake of the greater good. It is about putting others in front of oneself–waiting one’s turn. It is about turning the other cheek, enduring hardship, becoming compassionate and longsuffering.

Or so we are told.

What if this is just the morality of the weak? What if this is just what the poor, resentful huddled masses tell themselves to feel superior to those who are beautiful and powerful? The beautiful, the creative, the powerful–the few and the proud–these excellent individuals are only weighed down by such concerns. A morality of the weak only normalizes mediocrity. What’s needed is a morality of strength, power, and excellence! Enough with being held back. Enough with putting others first. Let the powerful be powerful. Let the beautiful be beautiful. Let the excellent be excellent. If you are none of these, bite your tongue, and get out of the way.

These are two moralities, two moral codes, two ways one could choose to live. Thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand have done much to suggest this framing of the question “how should we live?” Many of us grow up thinking and being taught that we need to bottle up our impulses–control ourselves–and live by society’s rules. Nietzsche and Rand come along and rouse us from our slumber. Enough with mediocrity, they tell us. Shine–if indeed you can.

This lens is attractive, but it is distorting. Beyond the so-called morality of the weak and the so-called morality of the strong, there is a third morality.

First, we should note that a moral code does not aim to describe the world. It aims to give guidance as to how one should live in the world. And so there should be no question as to which moral code is ‘correct’ or ‘true’. It’s not like Nietzsche or Rand (if this is how we read them) “get it right.” There’s nothing to get right. Morality is a human project, not a feature of the universe.

But if morality is human project, then it is whatever we want to make it to be. And why not have a moral code that celebrates excellence without celebrating sociopathy? Why not have a moral code that says BE AWESOME and DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE? If I have a moral code to commend to you, it is this third morality. Neither slave morality nor master morality. Neither the morality of the sociopathic elite nor of the mediocre horde. It is the morality of the individual empowered to be excellent both in personal achievement and in empathy.

The idea that you have to choose between the two–between being awesome and not being cruel/mean/whatever–is unhelpful. Try both!