The Edge of the Abyss
August 05, 2010
The 19th century philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and their existentialist successors such as Sartre and Camus, are the instigators of this problem. It is interesting to note in this regard that far from philosophy being irrelevant to modern society it has in fact had a tremendous and subtle influence. (A similar influence of philosophy is shown later in connection with the origin of modern ideals of individualism, freedom and Human Rights). Cultural themes are influenced and shaped by writers and artists, although often it is only in the hindsight of historical judgement that our vision of this phenomenon becomes clear.
Examining Nietzsche's attempt at "the revaluation of all values" and conscious "immoralism" demonstrates that far from proving that moral judgement is impossible, Nietzsche was in fact very much engaged in a campaign of moral criticism. His target was the ossified religiously-motivated ethical stagnancy of petty moralism. Although he targeted religion, his critique went much deeper, and even questioned the rising supremacy of the scientific ethos. Nietzsche shook the foundations of the moral thinking of his time, and helped uncover an important truth about modern morality: the meaning we find in our lives is structured around cultural symbols that are not static and can be changed. What Nietzsche missed was the accompanying realisation that there is an inescapably communal aspect to morality. This is the truth at the heart of relativism.
Part 2 of 23 in the Pentenary series.
When I read Nietzsche intensively a few years back (standard reading for any intelligent teenager); i thought I was convinced of moral scepticism.
I just don't remember any more what convinced me!
Many people in metaethics appeal to the obviousness of perceiving moral facts. There's a paper (I think its by Harman) which gives an example: if I see a bunch of hoodlums setting fire to a dog, I don't just know it's wrong, I can see that it's wrong.
Nietzsche's critique is flawed, and strong in respect of the communal aspect of morality. Nietzsche's target was the overly preachy protestants of Europe, the same goes for Kierkegaarde; those people who talk of morality and values yet have none for themselves. In the case of Kierkegaard it was the fake behaviour of the 'Sunday Christian' who would continue with their boorish non-Christian behaviour after mass.
For Nietzsche, morality as a communal doctrine was of a dominion forcing itself over the peasant masses. The project of a more authentic morality was of one dominion to be replaced by another one; namely, of Christianity to be overthrown by the post-theists.
Community in another sense is crucial to any account of morality. One key aspect of moral judgments is that we disagree. To disagree on a moral issue such as abortion is to question the base of opposing judgments. To engage in public discourse presumes the compatible language of disagreement, even if such issues are not resolved. Often some people argue (perhaps simplistically) that the fact that there is disagreement shows that moral values are real.
Posted by: Michael | August 15, 2010 at 09:46 PM
Michael: At first, Nietzsche's case for moral scepticism seems convincing - but Mary Midgley makes the shrewd point (referenced in the above) that he himself was engaged in a moral critique. :)
I didn't have space to work in Kierkegaard here, although I'm very fond of his work. Originally this piece referenced both of them, but it had to be scaled back in order to fit the stringent criteria for "bite sized" I had set myself i.e. 500 words (give or take).
"Many people in metaethics appeal to the obviousness of perceiving moral facts. There's a paper (I think its by Harman) which gives an example: if I see a bunch of hoodlums setting fire to a dog, I don't just know it's wrong, I can see that it's wrong."
This kind of appeal surely rests on the capacity for empathy - someone who lacked this faculty (say, an autistic child) would not recognise the problem in what was going on, I presume. That underlines the fact that our natural faculties automatically give rise to moral evaluations, I suppose.
"Often some people argue (perhaps simplistically) that the fact that there is disagreement shows that moral values are real."
Discussions of what is real get into ontological quicksand pretty quickly, of course, but I think there is a case for claiming that the capacity for disagreement highlights differences. Now in continental philosophy (which you despise!) difference is all you need to make an ontological claim because Deleuze and his followers make the claim that difference has precedence over identity in terms of ontological privilege.
Posted by: Chris | August 18, 2010 at 07:24 AM