Taylor: I’ve been reading a lot of Nietzsche of late, like you recommended.
Pat: Oh? And what do you think? What are you taking away from it?
Taylor: I really like what he has to say about immoralism. I realized I am an immoralist.
Pat: How so? How are you interpreting that word?
Taylor: Well, he makes this really fascinating case that morality sets itself up as an authority, and as an authority it refuses to let itself be criticized. It sets itself up as “above the law” in a way, by setting itself up as the law. By saying, “I am Morality Itself, you may not criticize me”, moralities give themselves license to bully people around with impunity. No one can gain any ability to criticize their group’s Morality because the word “moral” is on its side. If you question it you get tagged as “immoral” and maybe even see yourself as “immoral”, because you are arguing against what, in your culture, is taken to be The Moral Itself, almost by definition. So when a set of values—or, more precisely those who have an interest in promoting it—seize the word “Moral” and claim it for themselves, they gain all this possibly undeserved psychological leverage over people and over rival values which might challenge their legitimacy.
Pat: And how do you see “immoralism” as a solution?
Taylor: Well, immoralism means a couple things in this context. It means first of all embracing the realization that when you challenge received morals and values you are going to likely be branded as an enemy of Morality Itself and feel that way yourself. So, to own that and call yourself an immoralist is to ironically and defiantly turn their attack into a badge of honor and a way to call attention to the wrongness of what moralities do. They are really being immoral since they are making plays for excessive power over people that they do not deserve and they do so on behalf of certain groups at the expense of others. If that immoral hypocrisy is going to be considered Morality Itself, then count me as an immoralist. Put me down for being against moralities in general if they’re only going to be hypocritical covers for power anyway.
Pat: What bothers me though is that radical move right there—the decision to just ditch morality as worthwhile altogether just because of hypocritical abuses in the structures particular moralities have taken.
Taylor: That’s because you have been conditioned that way. You are conditioned by Morality to protect Morality. But that’s not because it is actually good for you. It is like belief in God. It is hard, but necessary, to shake the automatic genuflection before the altar of Morality. But that’s programming, we should resist it. It is a means for people to struggle for control over others, just as they do everywhere. The only difference here is that in this case people wind up lying to themselves that they are actually especially good people for struggling to give desires an unchallenged supremacy. And they gain a huge unearned propaganda advantage over those they seek to control.
Pat: Well, no, we shouldn’t resist all morality, just resist bad moral values and bad means of imposing them on people.
Taylor: But that’s where you miss the point. The problem with Morality is not just that people sometimes have bad moral values or sometimes impose them on people in bad ways. The problem is that moralities themselves are inherently authoritarian ways of thinking. They are attempts to order people around and make them obey unquestioningly.
Pat: No, not always. Not at all. Many people, on moral grounds, believe fervently in the right of free thought and in the need for moral values to be accepted freely and rationally in order to be followed well and appropriately at all.
Taylor: But even where that is so, the problem with moralities is that they still stack the deck against competing values. They say “I am Morality Itself, all other moralities are wrong.” This makes it much harder for people to rethink their values. And values need constant reconsideration. They should be under rigorous scrutiny at all times for their changing real world worth, lest they lead us astray.
Pat: But when you say this, you are giving a moral prescription. You are saying, “At all times, thou shalt scrutinize thy values for ‘their changing real world worth.’” Now, I don’t think this is a bad principle. I actually think it’s a great one. But I also don’t think that it is bad that it is itself a moral principle. I think you should own up to the fact that you are doing the very thing you are denouncing. You are saying this is Morality Itself and that the other moralities, for supposedly opposing such constant reinvestigations into values, are wrong. So, your “immoralism” is just another moralism. In fact you explicitly kept appealing to the hypocrisy and immorality of Morality in criticizing it. Those are moral grounds for critiquing something. Your problem does not seem to be that you really reject the ideal of a moral absolute, it’s that you think false moralities have usurped its throne.
Taylor: Well, yes, it is my own moral conditioning that leads me initially to care about moral consistency and to oppose hypocrisy, and to scrupulously do so even when it means challenging Morality itself. As Nietzsche himself noticed, the immoralist is actually the best moralist.
Pat: Then you’re not really an immoralist after all, you are a super-moralist. An übermoralist even.
Taylor: But not really. Or, not in every way, I should say. I mean, yes, I am following out Morality’s dictates to not lie and to not impose oneself on others through coercion, in order to show how Morality itself fails at this standard and undermines itself. But then I am not wanting to just institute another unjustified power system that I masquerade as founded on absolute Truth. I do not want to set up another bullying, authoritarian institution that’s really just a cover for my own values. I mean, sure, I want to advocate for my own values—but I want to do so honestly. I want to say, these are my preferences and feelings and I can’t use big intimidating words like “right and wrong” to try to prejudice people towards my subjective values and away from yours.
Pat: But it is what you’re doing. Isn’t it more dishonest to claim that somehow you can overcome the moral mind’s domineering tendencies and somehow deal in a simple, plain, straightforward way. You do not feel like these are just your values. You hold them conscientiously and with a fair amount of insistence on their principled correctness. Isn’t it actually disingenuous to claim that all you’re doing is rejecting moralism and opting to “share” your feelings in a non-intrusive way. Isn’t that just selling the same kind of thing, a morality, only now in a softer, less obnoxious way that does not make you feel embarrassed now that you’ve thought about the ugly side of what you’re doing? You’re still trying to have your cake and eat it too. If you really want to be an immoralist then just drop out of discussing values altogether. But if you are going to talk about them at least be big enough to stand behind what you’re thinking and what you’re saying and how you are in fact trying to influence people.
Taylor: But I really do want to do something different than just impose another morality. I really do want to accept the implications of what it means to not take recourse to presumptuous rhetoric of “right and wrong”. I want to argue without those words and those attitudes.
Pat: But this is morally motivated. You feel bad about imposing values because it goes against your moral sensibilities and priorities.
Taylor: But I recognize they’re only feelings and they have no greater force than that.
Pat: But they do have greater force than that. There are harms that come from both the moral practices and the coercive practices of inculcating values which you criticize. Your feelings are responses to actual goodness and actual badness in things.
Taylor: But to talk about “actual goodness and actual badness in things” is superstitious language. “Goodness” and “Badness” are not “in” things. They are just words for our feelings about them or our attractions to them or our repulsions at them. What is good to me or bad to me could be good to another or bad to another. These are not factual features of things.
Pat: Well, of course, they are not absolute features of things which are totally independent of agents. Goodness and badness are relational features. Something is good for some purpose or bad for it. It is either effective at bringing something about and therefore “good” for that kind of thing or it is ineffective or counter-effective to bringing it about and so is “bad” for that kind of thing. But, nonetheless, this is not just a matter of feeling. There are some things which are objectively effective for aiding us in our flourishing and some things which are objectively harmful to it. There are some things which constitute our flourishing itself—things through which we have our intrinsic good, i.e., through which we effectively come into being as the beings we are. And there are things which are bad for us—those through which we less effectively realize our potential in which we have our objective good.
Taylor: Why did you send me off to go read Nietzsche if you’re going to just start preaching to me about universal goods and telling me to embrace morality??
Pat: Well, I said objective good, not universal good. There’s a difference. By a universal good someone would mean that there was a good that was the same for all morally relevant beings whatsoever. That is not what I am saying except in one limited case.
Taylor: Which is?
Pat: Everything’s good is to maximally flourish as what it is. And on a human level, everyone’s deepest moral good is to maximize their own flourishing. But what that means in terms of which courses of action to take in particular times and places and cultures and subcultures and individual lives can vary widely. I mean, we can speak universally on another level, I guess, and say all humans would do better as much as possible to flourish intellectually, artistically, creatively, emotionally, socially, athletically, politically, technologically, etc. All humans should realize these broad kinds of powers through more specified powers which have empowering effects on others so that they spread their own power as much as possible through other people, that they may be as powerful as possible. But beyond these sorts of generalities, the particulars of what moral codes are necessary for a specific group of people to have order, trust, prosperity, and happiness between them can vary quite a bit with their needs and their temperaments. So, that’s why I think that it is very Nietzschean to oppose absolutism in morality and authoritarianism in morality and hypocrisy and lies in morality. Nietzsche’s so good because he so vigorously exposes and opposes various mechanisms by which values which are counter-productive, stagnating, or regressive to individuals’ or groups’ flourishing are coercively imposed on people to their detriment. But just because morality has been so abused does not mean we should—or, more importantly, could abandon it.
Taylor: Why can’t we abandon it? And why are you so sure you can still have morality without having absolutism? How are you going to purify it so it does not just continue to have the same negative effects and justify the same wicked deeds in good conscience it has always been able to.
Pat: While acknowledging the abuses people have committed while presuming moral superiority, there are also innumerable psychic and social benefits that people have gained from having norms and values. Many of these norms and values have long been understood to be worth heeding because of their association with “morality”. Telling people to abandon “morality” is only going to turn those people against us and write us off as a danger. If they associate the moral as that which leads to the good and we think our values and norms—or, actually our way of thinking about values and norms in general—is what leads to the good then the only way to adequately convey that in the language is to use the word moral and to rationally wrestle people’s associations of what the word should mean away from what they think it does and towards what we think is best.
Taylor: But then how can you be sure you will be any less a dishonest imposer of unfair norms and values for your own selfish benefit than other moralists are or were?
Pat: Because I can distinguish that while there is a general level of ethics that is universal—the level on which it is good for all of us both individually and collectively to objectively flourish in our powers—I can concede that specific moralities, including those I advocate are context relative, not absolute, not from “on high”, not unchangingly true, and so are capable of constant reevaluation for how well, on objectively developable measures, they lead to actual maximum flourishing in practice.
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.