The Evolution of Personal Responsibility: Nietzchean Supermanism and the Spark of the Individual

I’d like to take a brief break from disability, and share with you a paper that I’ve written on creating a professional ethical framework that doesn’t kill creativity. A la Sir Ken Robinson. Enjoy!

Friedrich Nietzsche
Cover of Friedrich Nietzsche

 

The Evolution of Personal Responsibility

“Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status,”  (Robinson, 2009). Ever since Henry Ford changed the world with the invention of the moving assembly line, global institutions of all kinds began to grow exponentially, and with that expansion came the exhortation of the idea of personal responsibility, which often appears in its corporative form as a “Code of professional ethics.” To understand this term better, it must first be broken into its fundamental components; defining the terms professional and ethics in order to construct a functional definition of the term “professional ethics.” Professional is typically defined in the relevant context as either “a person following a profession, especially a learned profession or a skilled practitioner; an expert” (Professional, 2003).  The term ethics or ethic in turn is typically simply defined as “A set of principles of right conduct.” The term “professional ethics” can therefore be defined as a set of rules governing right or acceptable conduct of someone engaged in the practice of a given profession (Ethics, 2003). This definition however useful in a typical work environment or an academic setting, has some problems, but has also revealed how one typically thinks about the term personal responsibility and personal ethics. The concept of personal responsibility and personal ethics are essentially synonymous, one ought to be held accountable to one’s own moral standards. There is a blanket failure in the assumption that the result of good ethics ought to be a universal system that is applicable to mankind without exception. This stance fails on two fronts: First it takes the personal out of personal responsibility and second, it fails to take into account differences in personal and cultural perceptions, which can hinder and quite possibly even halt personal growth, personal, and professional development, as well as damaging the root of business’ driving force; innovation.

Zarathustrian Ethics

Since this is the case for most codes of professional ethics as well as those traditional ethical systems from which they are derived, it would be useful to take the term “ethics” back to its philosophical roots in order to explore other possible ways of looking at ethics, and exploring the possibility of an ethical system that can both foster long-term acceptable professional conduct, without stripping away the potential gains to be had by way of innovation. Ethics, in the more traditional philosophical sense can be defined as the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it; moral philosophy (Ethics, 2003).  By that definition it is possible to find a less rigid philosophical framework that can be used to foster right conduct without suffocating a potential creative spark in the process, creating a greater potential for personal, professional, and academic success.

One such philosophical framework that can be considered in order to arrive at goals that are mutually beneficial in both fostering right conduct as well as creative thinking is that of 19th century Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s two major concepts that are most useful to the application of personal responsibility and personal ethics are those of the superman (Ubermencht), and the idea of radical individualism which stems from the former concept.  The ubermencht, often translated as either overman or superman. The idea of Nietzsche’s superman is of one who has undergone a major personal transformation by means of perseverance through great personal conflict. This enables one to see the world in a whole new way according to Nietzsche, and leads to an internal separation of the individual from his or her own society, then giving rise to a kind of personal morality; a morality in which a personal moral code is formed out of the sheer will of the individual, and because said moral code evolves out of an individual need, such a person is more likely to exercise self-accountability to it (Nietzsche & Hollingdale, 1961).

The twin idea born out of the idea of Nietzsche’s superman is that of radical individualism, not to be confused with the radical egoism espoused by pseudo-philosopher Ayn Rand, a system in which Rand believes an individual acting purely out of selfish motives, will inevitably produce results that are beneficial both to the individual, and society at large; rather Nietzsche’s view of radical individualism is not necessarily one of unlimited egoism. Nietzsche believed that the only way a human being could come to know true morality was to discover it through one’s own will and reason (Bramann, 1998). It is because of this that in Nietzsche’s view it would be possible to still have a personal code of morality and responsibility that in many cases would be societally agreeable as well; however, Nietzsche stressed that it was important for the individual to think for themselves, lest she fall to some nationalistic movement that suspends reason, and strips one of one’s own personal responsibility. In today’s global corporate community, this sort of personal code of ethics should be prized now more than ever. It enables one to reconcile one’s own reasons, and to assess potential problems within corporate structures, business plans and the like without fear of reprisal. It also allows one to create innovative solutions to a set of problems without the weight of having to consider whether or not the proposed solution goes against a particular corporate office culture. In such a case it’s clear that the individual would not only be thinking of self-benefit, but also the benefit of the company, in turn raising his or her potential value and improving the quality of work produced overall throughout the environment of the company. It is precisely this kind of thinking that enabled people like Henry Ford to revolutionize the business world for generations beyond his time. This is an idea of personal ethics that has the ability to infuse business culture with the synergy of both terms to their fullest extent; personal and responsibility.  In fact,  it is often those that set themselves apart in an academic setting who most frequently succeed in transitioning into professional life.

The counter-argument: Kant and Universalizability

One highly used argument against the idea of personal individualism as promoted by Nietzsche, is an idea refined by a 17th century philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant. The linchpin of Kantian philosophy as it concerns ethics can be thought of as the Golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Put in Kantian language it is expressed in the following way: act only according to that maxim which, at the same time can be turned into universal law (Thiroux, 2008). If this concept is given any sort of deep thought, it is easy to see the link between Kantian thought and the modern idea of a professional code of ethics. People go to work for a company, after they have the opportunity to become accustomed to the company’s culture, their behavior then begins to conform to that culture, and over time as the company grows those cultural morés are then codified into a professional code of ethics. For example, let us say that there is a newcomer to Company X, a new start up in the heart of Silicon Valley. The newcomer finds that every morning at 9am, the necessary documents for the day’s meetings are made and distributed 30 minutes prior to the first meeting of the day. Over time, the newcomer then suggests that all new employees should be made accustomed to this moré of the culture of the company, that rule is then codified and distributed as part of a new hire packet, so that all new hires realize from the beginning that this is part of their professional responsibility, and that continued failure to comply would result in the employee having to take personal responsibility for said failure.

 

One of the major flaws with the Kantian system and perhaps one of its most blaring problems is its inability to cope with extreme and/or novel situations.  For example, Kant would have us think that his moral and ethical system would prohibit the causation of pain from one human being to another, but in the case of a pairing between a sadist and a masochist the causation and the reception of pain is seen as mutually beneficial to both parties, Kant’s system is ineffectual in dealing with these types of situations. Likewise, such rigidity may leave an individual or a group unable to cope with rapid change.  In the case of academic success, an overly rigid academic structure can lead to uncreative individuals who ultimately will never supercede either entry level or middle management positions.

It is time for the overarching primary institutional structures in our global community to begin looking for ways to restructure themselves so as to foster a higher degree of educated innovation.  As we are beginning to see, business structures of days gone by are now collapsing to make room for structures that are more flexible and are more readily able to adapt to changing market conditions.  There are also coincidental occurrences in the realm of education.  More classes and institutions are exploring new interactive rich media solutions to pioneer more creative and effective delivery of educational content.  The traditional Prussian Kantian mode of thought is passing away, hopefully a more Nietzchean approach will help us better understand the coming age of innovation and enable a new definition of academic and professional success.
References

Bramann, J. K. (1998). Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Retrieved from http://facultyfiles.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Zarathustra.htm

Nietzsche, F., & Hollingdale, R. J. (1961). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. London England, Uk: Penigin Books.

Professional. (2003). American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/professional

Robinson, K. (2009). The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. New York, NY: Penguin.

Thiroux, J. P., & Krasemann, K. W. (2008). Ethics: Theory and Practice (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

ethics. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003)

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