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Eric Wills reveals how Nietzschean morality is displayed in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning movie.
“We are all on the way out. Act accordingly.”
In his recent film The Departed, Martin Scorsese presents us with a conflict between Martin Sheen’s conventionally moral policeman and Jack Nicholson’s amoral gangster, each of whom has his own informant working undercover on the other side. Frank Costello (Nicholson) finds his protégé, Sullivan (Matt Damon), in church, and he tells him to kneel to nobody. He encourages him to join the police and be his informant. On the other side, DiCaprio’s character Billy Costigan disowns his petty-criminal father and wants to join the police. His boss tells him he can prove his moral conviction by joining Frank Costello’s gang and feeding back information to the police.
The story illustrates Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that everything living seeks to express its strength. This is Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power, which he takes to be the reality hidden beneath the mask of our conventional notions of good and bad.
Costello rejects any moral constraint. He’s sated by the pleasures money buys, but otherwise displays a complete nihilism. In our everyday lives we are bound by social conventions and enslaved to the work-machine, so it ’s tempting to admire Nicholson’s gangster ‘telling it as it is’. He relishes attacking priests as moralising hypocrites, and when he says to Costigan, “We’re all on the way out. Act accordingly,” he is offering a choice between ‘acting’ in the sense of putting on a pious mask of morality, or simply ‘acting as we please’.
Nietzsche famously announced the death of God, by which he implied that in our scientific, post-Enlightenment age moral certainty has dropped away, leaving us pursuing a plebeian hedonism. But God is not the only departed. For Nietzsche, we are all on the way out, because pleasure and relief from suffering bring about the death of a certain kind of spiritedness. So there would be further ambiguity in Costello’s injunction to “Act accordingly”, because the new philosopher of the future, the Nietzschean ‘overman’ (übermensch) would recognise this as an injunction to settle “the wherefore and whither of mankind.” The overman has a responsibility to rekindle a noble set of human virtues that are also being extinguished.
But we must be careful not to identify the overman with Nicholson’s gangster. Like Nietzsche, Costello finds that conventional morality has a hollow ring, but Costello is nothing more than a nihilist. Although we might admire his defiance, our admiration is rooted in the kind of resentment which Nietzsche takes to be the mark of slaves, who seek to hide their weakness and deny their suffering. It was by turning the mask of morality against the Romans that early Christians took revenge on their master. In our atheistic age, Costello’s nihilism is another kind of resentment aimed at the conventional morality of the present establishment.
There is a lack of subtlety in supposing that God must be the source of moral value. Moral nihilism is not the only possible response to the death of God. Nietzsche calls for a different perspective. Ultimately, it’s a perspective which he supposes only a few of us can occupy.
Aside from a few cynics, Nietzsche says we are still mostly good Europeans, paying lip-service to conventional notions of good and bad while teetering on the edge of a Godless abyss. In the first part of Beyond Good and Evil he condemns past philosophers for not pursuing the question of why we value truth at all. Must the falsity of a judgement lessen its value to us? This is his ‘dangerous maybe’ –that there need be no fact of the matter at all regarding true or false, good or evil. But this still does not have to lead to nihilism.
For Nietzsche, the relevant issue is whether a belief is beneficial to living, and the test of a life well lived is whether we can honestly affirm that we would live this life again, exactly as it was. In affirming life in this way, we ‘become what we are’, free of any self-deceiving submission to slave-minded moral constraints imposed on us by fearful, weaker types. It is here that a notion of self-betrayal applies.
Scorsese’s film plays out the struggle between two kinds of betrayals. There is an irony in Costello delivering his punning advice to Costigan, the police informer in his midst, who is struggling to maintain his act as a member of Costello ’s gang while driven by his own morality. Costigan betrays Costello, while Damon’s character, Costello’s informant Sullivan, betrays conventional morality. But from a Nietzschean perspective we must not see the characters as moral opposites so easily. We cannot so simply say which of them is ‘good’. Instead we must distinguish them by what they betray. Which of them is self-betraying?
Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment provides empirical evidence of how simple obedience to moral authority can be self-betraying. Participants were encouraged to give apparently lethal shocks to others on the authority of the person supervising the experiment. In short, 65% obeyed the supervisor’s orders, giving weight to Nietzsche’s thought that our conventional morality is only a surface veneer. The moral conscience of participants in the experiment was easily dismantled, and their willingness to obey revealed instead either a strong or a weak will. Milgram’s results support Nietzsche’s claim that lip-service to morality hides moral weakness.
Nietzsche does distinguish two moralities. There is the master’s morality, and there is the slave’s morality. Costigan has the strength to assert himself and become what he is – which is a person with his own values. He has stayed on the side of law and order; but his choice was not simply lip-service. He invented himself though his own attempt at asserting a set of values which originate in his own resistance to Costello ’s nihilism. In the final shoot out, he pays the ultimate sacrifice for his attempt to make himself the person he wants to be.
By contrast, Sullivan is seduced from good to bad. So it is Costigan, the ‘good guy’ who is the Nietzschean versucher, the attempter, or free-spirit. Thus Costigan ‘acts accordingly’ by taking sides with moral order, and in his efforts he creates himself in a good Nietzschean way. Sullivan betrays everything good, including, crucially for Nietzsche, his own auton omy, because he only follows Costello’s lead.
In acting as he does, Costigan creates moral value, and thereby life, because it’s the self-creation of a moral life which distinguishes us as persons. Maybe this sounds too conservative a view of Nietzsche. From his higher perspective, Nietzsche says a genuine philosopher sees that truth is grounded in our will to power. But this still involves a notion of obedience, self-discipline and creativity. He is explicit that the essential characteristic of the new philosopher’s morality is: “Thou shalt obey, someone and for a long time: else you will perish and lose the last respect for yourself. ” (Beyond Good and Evil) In a world whose essence is will to power, it is self-betraying to suppose anything goes, because that ’s only a cynical response to the absence of God and objective truth. And we must avoid the deterioration of the human spirit which results from supposing anything goes.
It is the willingness to live one’s life over and over which is Nietzsche’s test of a life well lived. This still allows us to find examples in other peoples’ lives. But what happens in someone else’s life is up to them. Nietzsche tells us to care for our own souls. We have to work it out for ourselves. But Billy Costigan offers us an example. Moral ‘truth’ may be an illusion, but we are moral beings when we act according to our natures. Only the stronger type of person is capable of that. The rest are a ‘herd’, for whom the ‘truth’ is merely a comfort because they lack the strength of will to be truly moral and self-creative. And in this they stand in danger of being led astray by ignoble nihilists such as Costello ’s gang-land boss, as Sullivan was.
© Eric Wills 2008
Eric Wills teaches A Level Philosophy to a happy band of students at Yeovil College in Somerset.