Bread and circuses

by bjmuirhead

Morals, morals—everywhere

Although this may seem to be an outrageous statement, it seems to me to be true to say that everything is moral—there is not one thing we do or believe that does not have moral consequences.

Of course, it also is true that many—in fact: most—of our acts are morally inconsequential in and of themselves. Merely walking down a corridor to a philosophy tutorial has no great moral consequence—although we can easily imagine a situation in which such an act did have extreme moral consequences. Despite this, it is important to make the following observations:

Morality concerns itself with what is or is not, should or should not, be an appropriate action by an agent in respect of other agents (persons). In terms of this, morality in its broadest sense concerns ideals about what and how the world is and how we, culturally and individually, believe it should be, and is about right and wrong only in reference to these ideals.

One such ideal which dominates contemporary Western culture, which has been and continues to be taken to all other cultures, is capitalism which, as morality, is all about the goal of accumulating wealth (capital)—or, for most of us: possessions and a moderate amount of money. In cultures which now are predominantly secular, the primary ethical telos is this accumulation of wealth, and everything is subsumed to this goal, with its principles of freedom, competition, “hard work”, etc., leading to the ultimate goods of capitalism: wealth, possessions, (physical) comfort, entertainment.

For me, the most interesting aspect of capitalism as morality is the frequent, though these days less common, moaning and wailing to the effect that capitalism is morally bankrupt. But in saying this, there is a failure to recognise that capitalism is not morally bankrupt, it is a morality, an ethics, in its own right. And it is a powerfully effective morality, even though it demeans and demoralises many of the people who are presumed to benefit from it; if it were not for the ease with which possessions and material comfort—the bread and circuses of the contemporary world—can be purchased, there would likely be a mass rejection of this morality which benefits a minority and which maintains this benefit to the minority whilst being hideously destructive to the world and the majority of its people. (Nowhere is this more clearly the case than in the dangerously imperialistic USA.)

A Nietzschean moment

As with all major ethical systems, capitalism is a way of organising a society by providing ethical ideals which guide the lives of those in the society. The most severe critic of Western society, culture, and morality (even his own morality) was Friedrich Nietzsche. Among the many comments on ethics/morality, we find the following:

[…] all ethical systems have been so foolish and anti-natural that humanity would have perished of every one of them if it had gained power over humanity […]

[…] man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfil one more condition of existence than any other animal; man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life—without a faith in reason in life. (Nietzsche 1974, §1)


What is so frighteningly apposite about these quotes is that the moral system we know as capitalism has gained power over humanity, and humanity is in the process of perishing from the consequences.

Nietzsche recognised what might be called the secularity of religion, i.e., that it was no longer possible to believe in the Christian God and, by extension, the Jewish or Islamic God. There no longer was any adequate foundation for such belief, irrespective of whether or not such a God existed. (Concerning the actual existence of a God, Nietzsche had surprisingly little to say. He made it clear that what was at issue was a matter of belief, not existence—Zarathustra, on his way down form his mountain solitude, was perfectly happy to leave the hermit with his belief in God, merely commenting on how strange it was that the hermit had not yet heard of the death of God. (Nietzsche 1976, Zarathustra’s Prologue §2, p.124)) It is not surprising, therefore, that Nietzsche wanted a revaluation of all values—all values, after all, are moral and have import far beyond our mere belief in them. Nor, perhaps, is it surprising that Nietzsche failed to complete the first, necessarily destructive, part of such a project without having time to fully develop an alternative: whatever we may think of the ideas, the Übermensch, the will to power and the self-overcoming of humanity, as presented by Nietzsche, were merely the first sketches of a possible answer—first the Lion-spirit had to destroy the old beliefs; only then could the Child-spirit commence the process of revaluation. (See “On the three metamorphoses”, Nietzsche 1976, pp. 137–140) (This, I suspect, is the reason Nietzsche said “Beware! Something downright wicked and malicious is announced here: incipit parodia, no doubt”, in respect of Zarathustra. Any attempt to teach a new morality is bound to be a parody of the morality one seeks to replace; it also was, needless to say, a religious parody, taking into account all monotheism, from it’s very beginning with Zarathustra. Nietzsche’s paradoy was, therefore, proposing beginning from the beginning, again. (Nietzsche 1974, p. 33))

Whatever else is going on at the moment, it is clear that capitalist ethics reign, and that the result is an elaborate ignorance of other, competing ethical goals such as the survival of the species by preventing further pollution and environmental destruction. (Regular media hysteria about other issues ensure that the important issues fail to be considered.) These alternate ethical teloi are not a part of the capitalist ethic, and are doomed to fail—or already have failed—unless this dominant and now destructive ethic can be replaced.


Nietzsche, F. (1974), The Gay Science, Vintage Books. Translated, with commentary, by Walter Kaufmann.

Nietzsche, F. (1976), Thus spoke zarathustra, in W. Kaufmann, ed., ‘The Portable Nietzsche’, Penguin Books, pp. 103–439. Translated, with commentary, by Walter Kaufmann.