Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Gems from the Forums: Moral Nihilism in Thelema

This post reproduces a forum post from several years ago in which I discuss moral nihilism and its relevance to Thelema.

At the end, I address two new objections to moral nihilism.
Further reading includes three excellent essays by Erwin Hessle on the subject of moral philosophy (link, link, and link).

Read on for more.

What is moral nihilism? The term is usually defined as the position that no actions are inherently good or evil. I prefer the formulation that it’s the position that there is insufficient reason to think that moral claims express inherent truths (such claims appear to be, at best, expressions of subjective value).
This position is obviously different than moral absolutism (which holds that actions *are* inherently good or evil in themselves) and is further different than moral relativism (which holds that actions are good or evil in different contexts). So while a moral absolutist would say that theft is always wrong, and while a moral relativist would say that theft is wrong in a particular culture or in certain circumstances (or perhaps wrong in “my own personal system of morality”), a moral nihilist would deny that “theft is wrong” expresses any kind of inherent truth and is ultimately meaningless except perhaps as an expression of the values of the individual speaking it (“Boo theft,” “Yay helping strangers” – on the same level as “Boo vegetables,” “Yay ice cream”).

Moral nihilism, I would claim, is the logical conclusion of properly applied skepticism, which observes that there is insufficient evidence for thinking that moral claims express any kind of inherent truth and that there is indeed insufficient evidence for thinking that the systems from which moral claims are derived are even coherent. We might appeal to Hume’s famous formulation of the “is-ought” problem (that is, his observation that one cannot logically derive an “ought” statement from “is” statements: starting with the evidence of reality, we cannot derive how things “should” be in any inherently true sense). We might also conduct a survey of the various moral systems of the world and observe their failings and contradictions.
Thelema, as expressed in the writings of Aleister Crowley, is a philosophy of individual conduct with skepticism at its heart. The natural result of this skepticism is moral nihilism, and moral nihilism, as we shall see, is a precondition of discovering what he calls the True Will.

First, a handful of quotes from Crowley on the subject – quotes spanning his entire career, right up until the end, to demonstrate that I’m not “cherry picking” this position from his writings – will show moral nihilism is a clear position of Crowley’s and an integral part of Thelema:

“There are no "standards of Right." Ethics is balderdash. Each Star must go on its orbit. To hell with 'moral Principle;' there is no such thing; that is a herd-delusion, and makes men cattle.” – New Comment to AL II:28

“murder of a faithless partner is ethically excusable, in a certain sense; for there may be some stars whose Nature is extreme violence. The collision of galaxies is a magnificent spectacle, after all. But there is nothing inspiring in a visit to one's lawyer. Of course this is merely my personal view; a star who happened to be a lawyer might see things otherwise!” – New Comment to AL I:41

“Until the Great Work has been performed, it is presumptuous for the magician to pretend to understand the universe, and dictate its policy. Only the Master of the Temple can say whether any given act is a crime. "Slay that innocent child?" (I hear the ignorant say) "What a horror!" "Ah!" replies the Knower, with foresight of history, "but that child will become Nero. Hasten to strangle him!"

“There is a third, above these, who understands that Nero was as necessary as Julius Caesar.” – MiTP XXI

“There is no grace, there is no guilt

This is the law: Do what thou wilt.” – Liber 333

“One can never be sure what is right and what is wrong, until one appreciates that "wrong" is equally "right."” – MWT, XVI

“For until we become innocent, we are certain to try to judge our Will by some Canon of what seems ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; in other words, we are apt to criticise our Will from the outside, whereas True Will should spring, a fountain of Light, from within, and flow unchecked, seething with Love, into the Ocean of Life.” – Little Essays

We also have Crowley in Book 4 Part 1 discussing “Nama and Niyama” (Control and discipline, or morality and virtue) in the context of choosing a “moral code” for the duration of yoga practice designed merely for the purpose of disturbing the mind the least. In doing so, he presents “moral codes” not as absolute or even relatively true codes of conduct but systems of behavior accepted temporarily for utility, in order to ease the work of meditation. He even discusses how moral rules, like non-killing, originally were recommended by Masters to prevent the student's mind from becoming excited (by discouraging hunting for sport, for example) but that over time they were mythologized into absolute (and restrictive) rules, such that some fear to step on bugs.

All of the above quotations, then, are not only completely consistent with the idea that nothing is inherently good or evil, much of those quotations depend on this idea and explicitly state it. Observe that the first quote occurs in the context of commentary on the Book of the Law and the last quote (from Little Essays) occurs in the context of discussing discovering and carrying out the True Will.

When we turn to the Book of the Law – which is ultimately where the Law of Thelema derives from – we find this important line:

“Let there be no difference made among you between any one thing & any other thing; for thereby there cometh hurt.” – I:22

Morality – the belief that actions can be inherently “good” or inherently “evil” – is one of the primary ways that one can “make a difference” between two things. To think that any course of action is inherently “better” or “worse” than anything is a way of talking oneself into doing (or not doing) a particular action, regardless of one’s actual inclinations (True Will).
If we broaden our idea of “morality” to include all “should” statements generated by the conscious mind (“Hmm…I should really quite smoking,” “I should really go to this party to make her happy,” “I ought to start playing the piano again…after all, I studied it for so many years as a child”), we find that all “should” statements – even those that one believes are true “for oneself” in a “relative” sense – are ways of making a difference between one thing and any other thing.

In point of fact, it’s not “better” – in any inherent sense to smoke or not to smoke. It’s not “better” to go to party or not go to a party, etc.
We find, by the way, that all of these ideas – which we can call “moral” in the broadest sense of the term – all have one thing in common: the conscious mind is rationally deciding what the self *should* do, reasoning out a course of action.

“Quitting smoking will make me healthier, and it’s good to be healthy. I should quit smoking because it will let me achieve this good thing.”

“Going to this boring party will make my spouse happy, and it’s good to have a happy spouse. I should go to the party because it will let me achieve this good thing.”

“Starting to play the piano again will let me use the skills I acquired early in life, and it’s good to use all of one’s skills. I should play piano because it will allow me to achieve this good thing.”

See the common thread? Liber AL tells us:

Now a curse upon Because and his kin!

May Because be accursed for ever!
If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops & does nought.


Though these verses are commonly interpreted as a condemnation of reason as a tool for understanding reality, in the context of the passage in the Book, they are a condemnation of reason as usurper of the proper role of the True Will. (The Book does not at all condemn reason as a tool for coming to conclusions about reality: as Crowley says in his comments, the Book makes reason the "autocrat of the mind"). [See here]
The True Will, in Thelema, has no “why.” It doesn’t have a “purpose” or any particular “reason” for being what it is. One’s True Will – that is, one’s natural inclinations – are what they are. One doesn’t reason one’s way to the True Will, and holding rationally-formed moral beliefs (even “personal morality”) is the surest way to obscure the True Will from oneself.

These kinds of ideas are everywhere in Crowley’s writings. Take, for example, a passage from Book 4 Part 1 in which Crowley discusses the importance of perceiving reality as it is, rather than as it appears through the lens of our emotions and, ultimately, moral opinions:
Let [the young Magician] endeavour to see facts as facts, as simply as he would see them if they were historical. Let him avoid the imaginative interpretation of any facts. Let him not put himself in the place of the people of whom the facts are related, or if he does so, let it be done only for the purpose of comprehension. Sympathy, indignation, praise and blame, are out of place in the observer.
No one has properly considered the question as to the amount and quality of the light afforded by candles made by waxed Christians.
Who has any idea which joint of the ordinary missionary is preferred by epicures? It is only a matter of conjecture that Catholics are better eating than Presbyterians.
Yet these points and their kind are the only ones which have any importance at the time when the events occur.
Nero did not consider what unborn posterity might think of him; it is difficult to credit cannibals with the calculation that the recital of their exploits will induce pious old ladies to replenish their larder.
Very few people have ever "seen" a bull-fight. One set of people goes for excitement, another set for the perverse excitement which real or simulated horror affords. Very few people know that blood freshly spilled in the sunlight is perhaps the most beautiful colour that is to be found in nature.

The passage is funny – in a characteristically Crowley-humor way – but it’s also important for Thelema: people’s moral feelings and their emotional reactions to these things are impediments to seeing them clearly.
When he writes about the same bullfight in The Confessions, he makes this point again, this time explicitly linking it to Thelema:
the average man's senses are deceived by his emotions. He gets things out of proportion and he exaggerates them even when he is able to appreciate them at all. I made up my mind that it should be an essential part of my system of initiation to force my pupils to be familiar with just those things which excite or upset them, until they have acquired the power of perceiving them accurately without interference from the emotions.
Immediately in the same passage, Crowley connects this issue of being deceived by the emotions to the issue of good and evil and to the passage from The Book of the Law that I quoted earlier:
It is all a branch of the art of concentration, no doubt; but it is one which has been very much neglected, and it is of supreme importance when the aspirant arrives at the higher levels, where it is a question of "making no difference between any one thing and any other thing", and uniting oneself with each and every possible idea. For as long as anything soever escapes assimilation there remains separateness and duality, or the potentiality of such. Evil can only be destroyed by "love under will"; and so long as it is feared and hated, so long as we insist on attributing a real and irreconcilable existence to it, so long will it remain evil for us. The same of course applies to what we call "good". Good is itself evil in so far as it is separate from other ideas.

So, to sum up, Crowley observes that people are easily deceived by their emotions, by their sense that something, like a bullfight, is either repelling or alluring. These emotions feed into a sense that things are “good” or “evil” in an absolute or even relative sense. Yet this very sense (this moral sense) is the primary means by which a person “gets things out of proportion and […] exaggerates them even when he is able to appreciate them at all.” In so doing, a person makes a difference between things by holding up one action as “better” or “worse” than another. In this way, a person pays attention to his rational ideas about reality, rather than reality itself, and can easily end up following an idea instead of his actual inclinations (or True Will).

We are now in a position to evaluate the last quote on my list above, from Little Essays:
“For until we become innocent, we are certain to try to judge our Will by some Canon of what seems ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; in other words, we are apt to criticise our Will from the outside, whereas True Will should spring, a fountain of Light, from within, and flow unchecked, seething with Love, into the Ocean of Life.”

Being misled by the emotions and the moral sense – as outlined above – is precisely how people “criticize [their] Will from the outside.” Importantly, this applies not only to morality learned from other people but to one’s own (self-generated) ideas about what’s personally “good” or “evil.”
What Thelema requires, then, is skepticism aimed at the mind’s own rationally-formed moral beliefs about what is “good” or “bad” – even (or especially) one’s own “personal morality.” Moral beliefs – understood broadly to mean all “should” statements, both explicitly and subtly formulated and accepted by the mind – are the largest and most significant obstacle to the discovery of the True Will.

The early stages of Thelemic practice consist largely in locating and rooting out one’s most deeply held moral beliefs. The most common practice is to attempt to catch one’s own thoughts making moral judgments and then appreciating that these judgments have no inherent or absolute validity. They are, at best, an expression of value along the lines of “Gee, I like that color for the wall.”
By so doing, the practitioner will slowly come to be no longer guided by ideas about what “should” be done or what is “best” to do – in some absolute sense – and thus comes to perceive, more and more, what he is actually inclined to do, not because it is “good” in itself but simply that it is his inclination. A curse upon Because. No grace, no guilt. There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.

There are a few objections to moral nihilism that commonly come up, and I will address them below.

Objection #1: If we accept in moral nihilism, we’ll all start raping and killing indiscriminately!

A common concern people have about moral nihilism is that it renders indiscriminate murder or raping “not inherently bad.” Of course, it also renders it “not inherently good.” It just is what it is.
But fears that this attitude will lead to more instances of such behaviors demonstrates a lack of insight into how behavior actually works.

Consider the question of what normally accounts for how infrequently the average person engages in indiscriminate killing or raping. I’m willing to bet that everyone reading this post has not murdered anyone today. Why not? Did you avoid murder because you told yourself it was “wrong” (even though you really wanted to)? Or did you avoid murder because you had no inclination to do it and/or no inclination to suffer the penalties that society has set up for doing it?
I think the answer in almost all cases is the latter, so it is, in fact, not “moral beliefs” that prevent people from indiscriminately murdering or raping in the first place, but something else. Ergo, discarding moral beliefs will not increase instances of indiscriminate killing or raping.

It’s worth reflecting that the majority of rules in historical “moral codes” or “codes of law” – at least the main ones shared by various traditions across the world – tended to arise from codifications of actual behavior. That is to say, the vast majority of people simply don’t have the desire to kill others. It’s not that they avoid killing others because they think killing is wrong: rather, it’s that most societies have decided that killing is wrong because most people avoid doing it.


Objection #2: If we were all moral nihilists, there would be anarchy! There could be no laws!
This is simply false. Just as it’s not “morally wrong” for someone to kill, it’s also not “morally wrong” for a society to decide that they don’t want people indiscriminately killing and thus decide to lock up anybody that does.

Morality doesn’t have to enter into it: if a society wants to forbid an action – simply because they judge the action to interfere with certain goals they have for their society – then they can forbid/punish the action. It’s not “wrong” for them to do that.

Objection #3: You can’t be a moral nihilist because please think of the children!
This is the weirdest one. On a thread on Lashtal a few years ago, another poster asked me, “would I be correct in assuming […] from your advocacy of "moral nihilism" that you do not have any children?”

As I correctly responded, this is a non-sequitur. The two things named are unrelated: being a moral nihilist has no bearing on whether one decides to have children.
The other poster didn’t respond to my point. Instead, he later bizarrely described this question as “a more-than-adequate refutation of the usefulness of "moral nihilism" as a practical matter.”

This makes little sense. I suppose, if I were to venture a guess, based on this “practical matter” comment, this other poster’s point is something like, “You can’t be a moral nihilist and raise children properly because properly raising children involves teaching them the difference between right and wrong.”
I feel odd trying to reconstruct the other poster’s premise because there’s really not a logical way to phrase it, and the above – admittedly very faulty – formulation is only one possible thing the poster might have been trying to say.

Regardless, it should be obvious that not believing in any inherent morality to actions has no bearing on communicating information or values to others.
Take, for example, the issue of touching a hot stove. I don’t think it’s “morally wrong” to touch a hot stove, but I sure as hell don’t want to do it. And the mere fact that I don’t think it’s “morally wrong” doesn’t mean I wouldn’t say to my kid, “Careful! The stove is hot! Don’t touch it or you’ll get burned.”

In the same way, not thinking that stealing, for example, is morally wrong doesn’t mean that one cannot honestly teach one’s children that “stealing is a bad idea for a lot of different reasons.”

Objection #4: But Thelema does have a moral code! It’s “Do what thou wilt”!
This silly objection is just a matter of quibbling over words. Someone can call “Do what thou wilt” a moral code, but as I explained above, it’s actually the repudiation of morality in the sense of that which ought to be done.

It’s more accurate to say that “Do what thou wilt” is a description of the results of abandoning morality in the sense of that which ought to be done.

Objection #5: But Crowley wrote “Duty”! So he thought that Thelema had a code of conduct!

I have a few points to make here, but the gist of my response is that “Duty” is not a moral code in the sense that that term is normally understood. At best, it is a list of explications of “Do what thou wilt” and some suggestions on how possibly to put the Law of Thelema into practice.
First, a little perspective on this document. “Duty” is an OTO document (not an A.’.A.’. document) and thus has no official “class” designation. We might consider it to be part of Crowley’s efforts to implement the Law of Thelema in the social sphere and to make it the basis of a popular religion, efforts that I personally think are at least misguided. Recall that Crowley is not the ultimate authority on Thelema, and that if he makes any points about Thelema that are in conflict with the Book of the Law – as he does in some places – we can conclude that he was incorrect on those points.

Second, if you actually read “Duty,” you’ll see that almost none of it – and possibly none of it, depending on how you interpret it – actually consists of rules of behavior. Instead, most of the document consists of explications of “Do what thou wilt.” For example, one of the points in “Duty” is “Explore the Nature and Powers of your own Being.” This is not a rule or moral precept: it’s an explanation of how one goes about doing one’s Will. If Crowley’s statement qualifies as a moral precept, then we can equally consider as a moral precept “Turn on a car if you wish to drive.”
Third, even if “Duty” did consist of rules to be obeyed, it still does not trump an individual’s Will. If there were ever a conflict between those rules and an individual’s Will, the Law of Thelema dictates that the individual’s Will takes precedence.

For example, point C1 reads, “Establish the Law of Thelema as the sole basis of conduct.” Crowley goes on to explain, “You may regard the establishment of the Law of Thelema as an essential element of your True Will” and that it is “incumbent on every man and woman to take the proper steps to cause the revisions of all existing statutes on the basis of the Law of Thelema.”
But let’s say that there’s a person whose Will does not involve doing any of this at all. In this case, the Law of Thelema dictates that the individual ignore point C1.

And if obedience to any particular part of “Duty” depends upon the individual’s Will, then “Duty” isn’t much of a moral code.

Of course, that’s even leaving aside the point that Crowley seems to be saying that he knows more about each individual’s True Will than that individual does. “You may regard the establishment of the Law of Thelema as an essential element of your True Will”? It’s patently ridiculous to conclude that a dead British guy could know more about the True Will of everyone on the planet than those individual people do. The proper Thelemic response to such a sentence is “Fuck you, Crowley.”
The problem with discussing moral nihilism is that most people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that there is no ultimate moral obligation to act in any particular way. One reason for this discomfort is that moral nihilism reminds people of things that most of them would rather forget: that the world is dangerous, unpredictable, unfair, uncaring, and without any sense of justice.

But what people often overlook is that acknowledging the lack of any ultimately binding morality can form the impetus for people to construct social codes of behavior – including laws, mores, and societal standards – that try to create a kind of justice in a universe that lacks justice; that try to create comfort in a world that does not care about comfort; that try to create stability in an unstable world.

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