Recently Joel Marks, a career moral philosopher, concluded that the moral certitude he has felt and argued for his entire career was built as much on faith as many theists’ belief in God is. And in response he swung radically in the opposite direction and came to believe that there can be no rational objectivity in morality, but rather only our feelings. Moral debates cannot be conceived of as being about true and false or absolute right or wrong, but about persuading others to share our feelings.
When I first became an atheist I had a similar swing towards emotivism. It was a combination of the influence of Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche that made me a moral realist again. In several posts, I want to explain how this happened. In this post, I want to zero in on Nietzsche’s equal contempt for both moral absolutism and moral relativism, which was very influential upon me. In this and future posts, I want to explore why he called them both “equally childish”, why I think he was right to do so, and what the implications of this conclusion are in Nietzsche’s thought and in my own.
In The Gay Science, section 345 (as translated by Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro), Nietzsche writes about moralists that they just accept their cultures’ morality and serve as its shield bearers rather than as rigorous critics:
Their usual mistaken premise is that they affirm some consensus among people, at least among tame peoples, concerning certain moral principles, and then conclude that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me–or conversely, they see that among different peoples moral valuations are necessarily different and infer from this that no morality is binding—both of which are equally childish.
The mistake of the more subtle among them is that they uncover and criticize the possibly foolish opinions of a people about their morality, or of humanity about all human morality–opinions about its origin, its religious sanction, the myth of the free will and such things–and then think they have criticized the morality itself. But the value of the injunction “Thou Shalt” is still fundamentally different from and independent of such opinions about it and the weeds of error that may have overgrown it–just as surely as the value of a medication for someone sick is totally independent of whether he thinks about medicine scientifically or the way an old woman thinks about it. A morality could even have grown out of an error, and the realization of this fact would not as much as touch on the problem of its value. Thus no one until now has examined the value of that most famous of all medicines called morality; and for that, one must begin by questioning it for once. Well then! Precisely that is our task.
Nietzsche here specifies that his task is not simply to expose the psychological and historical contingencies that make for different moralities, but to question moralities for their objective functional value. Exposing that a particular morality comes from an erroneous, mythical tradition does not by itself tell us that that morality is worthless just because it has traditionally been falsely conceived. Similarly exposing the psychological ways that we form moral concepts does not invalidate their claims to objective value. Neither does showing the historical and cultural processes by which different moralities arise and contrast with each other tell us that each morality is of equal value.
In this text, Nietzsche does not lay out his standards of objective value explicitly, but he clearly thinks there are some–just as there are objective standards for health and sickness. But the objective worth of a morality cannot be assessed in terms of whether they are error free in their current formulations or by whether they were initially forged in a truthful or, even, morally approvable way. The only thing that matters is their current, actual functional value in objective terms, and their potential functional value in objective terms.
I think the use of the word “childish” is apt because children lack experience and without experience, their perspectives are limited. With increased age, increased experience, and, hopefully, a resulting increased maturity, we can start to understand how something may be true in one respect while false in another or good in one respect while false in another.
We may come to understand that one culture’s morality may function objectively well for them, even if they are nearly completely deceived in their explicit attempts to understand why their morality is good for them, i.e., how it actually functions to bring them objectively good things. We may also come to understand how moral precepts which would be, on net, damaging in our own culture might, on net, be objectively life-enhancing in another culture. And vice versa.
There is still room on this view to observe that another’s morality does them objective harm in some ways, without having to judge it in terms of one’s own morality. Simply put, we can find that a morality is counter-productive to a group’s flourishing on the grounds of that group’s own objectively determinable good, and not simply because it violates our own moral standards by which we seek the good.
In this way, Nietzsche cautions us against thinking either that a false belief cannot lead to a good morality anyway, or that a false reasoning process cannot lead accidentally to a truth or a good morality anyway.
This is not to say that we should not promote truer ways of thinking and truer beliefs that we might more directly achieve truer, better values. It is not to say that morality requires falsehoods or “noble lies” or religious myths, etc. and we should just leave all those things alone and not mess with a good thing (as many a jittery opponent of explicit atheism who fears what the masses would do were there no god thinks).
Errors are not all created equal. I would argue that even where errors in abstract moral understanding ostensibly accompany admirable and successful moral actions, traditions, and practices, the errors themselves likely did not cause the good values to come about or to be successful, but, rather, the desirable practices arose through natural social dynamics, and then they were approved of by grateful moral feelings, and then they were given a foolish theoretical interpretation and explanation. Since most of the worthwhile moral habits and feelings arose in such an uncontrolled way, through a ground up natural social process, their selection was usually more likely through a kind of natural social selection, rather than a top down invention of confused myth makers.
The erroneous myth-making and the subsequent reinforcement of the values through myths likely usually came second. The values were vindicated in advance by how well they were working and how successfully they were winning over moral feeling as a result of their seeming success in making life better. Good values will continue to vindicate themselves in practice without any errors or myths being necessary. We can join Nietzsche’s project of investigating the true reasons why some values are objectively beneficial (and so, truly good, or “true values”) in some contexts and not in others, without fearing that dispelling myths will make the values they have traditionally supported ineffectual.
Let me end with a final classification note. It was this text and its implications that led me (with the invaluable help of my dissertation adviser, John Davenport) to recognize that Nietzsche was an indirect consequentialist. He was a consequentialist in that he thought moralities were justified by its ability to create some kind (or kinds) of objective good.
Yet, he was an indirect consequentialist because he did not then infer that the only good moralities were explicitly consequentialist ones, nor that we should prescribe explicitly consequentialist moralities in the future. The best moralities are the ones which function in effect to create the greatest good. They are not necessarily ones in which people aim at the greatest good itself.
And, his consequentialism should be clearly distinguished from utilitarianism (which he famously and venomously attacks repeatedly) in that the goods to be maximized according to Nietzsche are the will to power and human excellence, and not simply pleasure. Nietzsche is an indirect consequentialist perfectionist.
There is much more to say, of course, but this post should suffice to show the key to understanding Nietzsche not as a moral nihilist but as a moral pluralist, who believes that moralities and specific moral values can genuinely differ in their worth and be assessed objectively according to an independent, true standard. One question we will have to explore in a future post is what this objective standard Nietzsche has in mind could possibly be, and whether its existence could be squared with his various attacks on claims to objectivity in values or morality.
But, for now, Your Thoughts?
For more Nietzsche explication and interpretation at Camels With Hammers see the following posts, among many others:
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.