Arthur Schopenhauer: Ethics and Theory of Justice


Arthur Schopenhauer. Born 1788 Danzig, died 1860 Frankfurt/Main.



Schopenhauer’s philosophy and influence

Schopenhauer’s ethics and theory of justice follow from his epistemology, according to which the world as it appears to us, as we perceive it, is to a large degree shaped by our mental apparatus. Following Immanuel Kant, he assumes that time, space and causality are not characteristics of the thing-in-itself (“Ding an sich”) but categories of our mind. All distinctions between individuals disappear once these categories are taken away. In other words, all beings are in essence One. Schopenhauer differs from Kant in concluding that we can indeed make some statement about the characteristics of the thing-in-itself. This is possible because we are not only individuals who perceive the external world, but also the subjects of perception. These subjects are essentially Will.

A detailed discussions of Schopenhauer’s philosophy can be found here (see also here), of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art here, and on Schopenhauer’s contributions to the theory of evolution here.

Schopenhauer’s ethics has had a deep influence on many philosophers and writers after him. Albert Einstein, for example, mentions Schopenhauer as an important influence on his views. Schopenhauer was the first who arrived at conclusions similar to those in Eastern philosophy, in particular Hinduism and Buddhism. And he was the first in Western philosophy who based ethics on compassion with man and animals. Friedrich Nietzsche began as a follower of Schopenhauer but soon developed radically different views (see here).

All citations (in parantheses) are my translations based on Schopenhauer’s collected works [1]. In important cases, exact equivalents of German and English terms do not exist. Even “Vorstellung” in the title of his main work cannot be unambiguously translated into English; it has been translated as idea, imagination, representation, perception, none of them entirely satisfactory. Indeed, Schopenhauer himself has published a theory of language in which this problem is addressed. This theory has for example influenced the important linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. – In doubtful cases, I give my English translation and the German original.


Schopenhauer Ethics: affirmation and negation of the Will, tat twam asi

The fourth book of Schopenhauer’s main work, The World as Will and Perception (Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) deals with Schopenhauer’s ethics. He considers this book as the “most serious” one, because it discusses the actions of man and is therefore of concern to everybody. He emphasizes that ethics cannot teach morality, as little as aesthetics can teach us how to become a genius.

As pointed out in earlier sections of the World as Will and Perception, individuality is a feature of the perceived world, but not of the thing-in-itself. Therefore: “Death is a sleep in which individuality is forgotten: everything else awakens, or rather has stayed alive”. Deep sleep, while it lasts, differs from death only with respect to the awakening. The will, the thing-in-itself, is One (i.e., all individuals will join it after their death), and it (its intelligible character) is free, since it is not subject to the categories of causality, time and space. The empirical character however, as perceived by us, is strictly, in all details, determined. Everybody considers himself a priori free in the sense that he is able to perform any action, and he learns to know his own character only a posteriori, by experience. That is, “the intellect experiences the decisions of his will only a posteriori and empirically. He has, before a decision, no information (“datum”) about what decision the Will will make.” “The claim of an empirical freedom of Will ….. is a consequence of the misguided attempt to place the essence of man into a soul…” In this context Schopenhauer’s introduction of the term acquired character (in addition to the intelligible and empirical character) is interesting: it is a human’s character (whether our own or that of others) with all its strengths and weaknesses revealed by long experience.

The world, as an everlasting struggle of all against all, is even in principle a place of suffering. “ The basis of all willing is indigence, scarceness, therefore pain to which a human is exposed primordially and by its essence. When objects of his desire are missing because fulfillment of the desire has been too easily granted, he is overcome by a terrible emptiness and boredom: i.e., his being and existence become an unbearable burden”. “This is strangely also expressed by the fact that – after man has put all suffering and agony into Hell, nothing but boredom is left for Heaven.” “Life of most is an everlasting struggle for existence itself, in the certainty that it will finally be lost. The reason why one persists in the arduous struggle is not love for life, but fear of death”. – Satisfaction, happiness is always only negative, since every desire, i.e. scarceness, is the preceding condition of the desire. Altogether, permanent satisfaction cannot be attained.”

Schopenhauer mentions examples from history and hospitals, among others, in support of his thesis.

How can we escape from this hell? By renunciation, negation of the Will. Thus, the voluntary negation of the satisfaction of the sexual urge, not based on a motive, is a negation of the Will to life. However, it is unjust to negate the Will in another body, i.e., in order to harm or destroy it, either by deceit, lie or force. Proceeding from this, Schopenhauer develops a theory of ownership, of natural justice and law in general. Injustice is the original and positive, justice the derived and negative concept. “The only purpose of law is determent from encroaching on others’ rights”. Schopenhauer considers Kant’s thesis that humans should always be considered to be the end (“Zweck”) and never as means, as vague and problematic, because “a murderer sentenced to death must with full justification be used as means”, as a determent and for the re-establishment of public security. However, this applies only to justice in time (“zeitliche Gerechtigkeit”), eternal justice which applies to the entire world (that is, lies in its essence) and does not depend on human constructions (“Einrichtungen”), cannot be retaliatory, because it lies not in time unlike justice in time which is based on retaliation. “Punishment must here (in eternal justice) be connected with the crime in such a way that both are one.” If one wants to know what humans as a whole and in general are worth from a moral perspective, one only has to look at their fate as a whole and in general. This is indigence (“Mangel”), misery, agony and death. Eternal justice at work…..”. However, the “crude individual” has a different view, since he knows only the temporally and spatially separate appearances: he sees tormentors and murderers on the one side and sufferers and victims on the other, who are really only One. Nevertheless, in the depth of his consciousness he sometimes has the “somewhat dark hunch” that “all this is not entirely foreign to him”. Horror (“Grausen”) is founded on this sometimes appearing hunch. All evil in the world derives from the Will which is the real essence of each single person. Hence (Schopenhauer quotes Calderon’s “Life as Dream”, in which the Christian dogma of original sin is expressed: “Since the greatest guilt of man is that he was born”). – Esoterically depicted in the Vedas and especially in the Upanishads, the myth of transmigration expresses the cognition of eternal justice in an easily understandable form for the people. You must not kill an animal, because at a time in eternity you will be born as such an animal and suffer the same death”. This is the meaning of “tat twam asi” (This is you), which is the foundation of Hindu teaching. – In the same sense Christian ethics forbids retaliation of evil with evil and submits to eternal justice (“Revenge is mine, I shall retaliate, says the Lord”).

Our discussion to this point permits a description of the ethical significance of action. According to Schopenhauer, genuine virtue can come only from the insight which recognizes in a foreign being the same being as one’s own. “In principle (“an sich”) all deeds…. are just empty images, and only the attitude (ethos, “Gesinnung”) that leads to them, lends them moral significance.” The principle of justice (based on the negation of evil) commands that one must not hurt others.” Genuine goodness goes much further and leads to love of mankind  (“Menschenliebe”): one distinguishes much less than usually between oneself and others, one sacrifices one’s property and even oneself to one’s neighbour (“Nächster”) and one does not torture an animal. Love is based on the recognition of foreign suffering and pure love is therefore by its nature compassion. All this is in direct contradiction to Kant’s view that any truly good and virtuous deed is based on abstract reflection, on the concept of duty and the categorical imperative. – Crying is compassion with oneself. – When a human does no longer distinguish between himself and another human, and when he participates as much in the distress of others as in his own, and when he sees all the suffering in the world, he arrives at resignation, the condition of voluntary renunciation (“Entsagung”). The Will turns away from life. “Essentially nothing but appearance of Will, it ceases to will anything…. “Chasteness is the first step in asceticism or the negation of the Will to live”. – With the total abolition of perception the rest of the world would disappear into Nothing….” This idea was also expressed by Christian mystics, for example Angelus Silesius and Meister Eckhard, and in Buddhism (entrance into the nirwana).- Asceticism is also shown by voluntary indigence, such as the one practiced by Franciscus of Assisi.

In this sense Schopenhauer’s pessimism must be understood, and he shares it with original Christianity (e.g., Augustinus) resurrected by Luther, the Christian mystics, Hinduism and Buddhism, but not with the old testament and the non-Lutheran Protestantism, whom he accuses of hollow optimism.

Suicide is not a way to escape from the misery of this world. “Far removed to be a negation of the Will, it is indeed a phenomenon of affirmation of the Will. For negation consists in its essence not in loathing the sufferings but the pleasures of life. A suicide wants life but is unhappy with its conditions, under which he has to suffer. Therefore he does not renounce the Will to life, but only life by destroying his appearance in life.” For similar reasons Schopenhauer opposes contraception, abortion and the “promotion (“Beförderung”) of killing newborns”. The Will to life can only be abolished by perception, that is, the Will must appear unobstructed in order to perceive its own essence.

But can the negation of the Will to life in the sense just discussed (as “renunciation without a motive”) be reconciled with the ascertainment that “all causes are only opportunity causes (“Gelegenheitsursachen”) which show themselves with the necessity of a natural law? Schopenhauer says “In truth real freedom can be attributed only to the Will as thing-in-itself but not its appearance…”


Schopenhauer’s views on some specific problems in justice

From volumes I and II, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, quotes in parentheses.

Property (I, pages 442ff): Injustice (“Unrecht’) is the incursion into the affirmation of life (“Lebensbejahung”) of another person. Hence, property which cannot be taken from another without injustice is exclusively that which the other has worked on (“bearbeitet hat”). A simple declaration to exclude others from the use of a thing does not establish a right. There can be no seizure (acquisition of possession) in law without previous application of one’s own labour (work, “Kräfte”). Enjoyment of a thing, without any work or without securing it against destruction, does not give a right of possession. Hence, even if a family has hunted exclusively in a region for a century, without having contributed anything to its improvement, it cannot prevent somebody else from hunting there without committing moral injustice.

Defence (I, pp.448ff): I have the right to negate any foreign negation with the force necessary to overcome it, even if it implies killing the foreign individual, because negation of negation is affirmation within my personal sphere of affirmation of life, and not negation of the foreigner.

Role of the state (I, pp.459ff.): A state’s function is protection of everybody against suffering injustice. People renounce committing injustices and, in turn, agree to carry the burden of maintaining the state. Laws and punishment enforcing them are directed towards the future, not the past. This distinguishes punishment from revenge, the latter concerned with the past. Retaliation for an injustice by administering pain, without use for the future, is revenge, and can have only one purpose: to console somebody for his suffering by looking at foreign suffering that one has caused. This is malice and cruelty and cannot be justified ethically. Injustice committed by somebody does not entitle me to do injustice. It is therefore senseless to accept the jus talionis as an autonomous final principle of criminal law. “The only purpose of law is determent from encroaching on others’ rights”. Kant’s theory of criminal law based on retaliation for retaliation’s sake is utterly without basis and wrong. Schopenhauer emphasizes that his views on the theory of punishment are not new but go back to Plato, Hobbes, Feuerbach, and Puffendorf.

(II, pp.1400): “those who with Spinoza deny that there is Right outside a state, confuse the means to enforce justice with justice itself… exists independent of the state.”

Schopenhauer’s Sämmtliche Werke in Fünf Bänden. Grossherzog Wilhelm Ernst Ausgabe, Insel Verlag Leipzig. I. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung Teil I. II. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung Teil II. III. Kleinere Schriften. IV. Parerga und Paralipomena. I. Teil. V. Parerga und Paralipomena. II. Teil.


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  1. Anonymous

    Eine schöne Zusammenfassung, — die mir besonders gutgetan hat, weil ich seit Jahren nichts mehr von unserem grimmigen Meister gelesen habe. – Ich möchte nur einen Hinweis geben, der Kennern des Werks pedantisch erscheinen mag, aber Neulingen willkommen sein kann. – Mit einem kleinen Anlauf: Auf die Frage Napoleons, wo in seiner präzisen astronomischen Theorie denn Gott seinen Platz habe, antwortete der große Mathematiker Laplace, die Hypothese habe die Wissenschaft (wörtlich: er) nicht nötig. Zur gleichen Zeit eliminierte Schopenhauer mit Wucht die Gottesvorstellung auch aus der Philosophie – auf diesem Gebiet natürlich (allein schon wegen seines gründlichsten Lesers Nietzsche) mit immensen Folgen, die längst noch nicht aufgehört haben umstürzlerisch zu wirken -, indem er eine konsequent diesseitige Philosophie schuf, was sich eindringlich in seiner Ethik ausdrückt. Daher sind die christlichen Mystiker und Augustinus im untersten Grund von Schopenhauers Denken separiert, doch auch alle Einzelheiten ihrer Lehren sind systembedingt jeweils davon verschieden: eben grundverschieden. Wo scheinbar eine Ähnlichkeit besteht – man denke nur an die Hochschätzung des Mitleids – ist sie (gleichnishaft mit biologischen Termini gesagt) prinzipiell nur analog und nicht homolog: Ähnliche Funktionen haben in Schopenhauers philosophischem System und in den Bauplänen theologischer Lehren völlig andere Grundlagen oder Gründe. Aber auch wenn es nicht so wäre, so verwirrt es doch nur, Schopenhauers philosophische Wertsetzungen zugleich mit theologischen zu nennen, selbst wenn es nur im kleinsten Rahmen geschieht, vor allem aber, wenn (wie hier) alle Voraussetzungen und Grundannahmen auf extreme Weise verschieden sind und einzelne Aussagen jeweils kettengliedartig von systemimmanenten Prämissen abhängen, so dass immer nur die großen Einheiten als Ganzes verglichen werden können. Schopenhauer hat sich mit Augustinus gründlich (wie das Verb sagt) auseinandergesetzt, um sich von ihm und ähnlichen Denkern präzise abzugrenzen und theologische Fehlschlüsse und Fallstricke aufzuzeigen (und nicht etwa um Ähnlichkeiten zu suchen.) Es sollte daher immer nur Verschiedenheiten der Systeme betreffen, wenn wir theologisches Denken in einem Atemzug mit Schopenhauer erwähnen, um dem fatalen Irrtum vorzubeugen, es gäbe Brücken zwischen ihnen oder es könne sie auch nur geben. – Ich wünsche auch diesem Artikel viele Leser. Die Gesamtzahl allein der Zugriffe auf deine Knols dürfte wohl mittlerweile 100 000 überstiegen haben? Ein sehr schönes Ergebnis! (Josef Alvermann, Baden-Baden)

  2. Narayana Rao

    Very interesting — I am trying to read philosophy books as well as business ethics books. But still did not reach a level where I understand things in these subjects. But I keep writing summaries whenever I read a chapter. This online writing opportunities make it more interesting compared to earlier days when notes were written only for the benefit of oneself.I thank you for informing me and indicating this knol to me. Amartya Sen recently wrote a book on ethics (philosophy) of justice. Someday I plan to read it. Then this account of justice will prove useful.I think wherever you used the word ‘determent’, deterrent is the right word. One more thing I noticed recently is that the telugu or sanskrit word for punishment is Shiksha and its meaning is given as education. Hence in this language, punishment is always associated with educating the person not to commit the crime or mistake in the future. I only recently realised this aspect when I referred to a Telugu dictionary. As it was mentioned in this article, even if somebody is sentenced to death, it is more to act as deterrent to others not to commit it rather than inflicting the damage on the culprit. Education of either the individual or the society is the objective of shiksha. But my ideas are that of a novice in this subject.Thanking you once again with regards

    • Klaus Rohde

      Thank you for the comment. I wished I could read Sanskrit. Why don’t you publish some knols in your own language, perhaps bilingual: English in one column and the Indian language in the other.Concerning deterrent: in fact, both deterrent and determent are possible, but determent seems so me slightly more to the point in this case.

    • I started writing in my native language Telugu.But instead of lot of text, I am writing devotional songs and giving links to their audio or video versions available on the internet. There is a lot of content on internet but still it is not being accessed by many because they do not know that it exists. So many of us have to highlight such material in our online articles.Also on 21st June, it is world music day it seems. That way I created some knols before the event. Regards

    • Klaus Rohde

      Thanks for the comment. I think it is important that people write in their native languages. Perhaps others will follow you and produce knols in Telugu.

    • Narayana Rao

      Thank you for the encouragement.I am just now reading Nietzsche from Will Durant. In it he wrote, Nietzsche was influenced to a great extent by Schopenhauer.Regards

  3. Marylee

    I came to your “Arthur Schopenhauer: Ethics and Theory of Justice &” page and noticed you could have a lot more traffic. I have found that the key to running a website is making sure the visitors you are getting are interested in your subject matter. There is a company that you can get traffic from and they let you try it for free. I managed to get over 300 targetted visitors to day to my website. Check it out here:

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