We didn’t have a blog yet when this episode came out, but the episode link is here. Thanks to Jasmine Li for the transcription!
Hello and welcome to Elucidations, a philosophy podcast recorded at the University of Chicago. I’m Matt Teichman.
And I’m Mark Hopwood.
With us today is Brian Leiter, John P. Wilson Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago, and he’s here to talk to us about Friedrich Nietzsche’s views on morality. Brian Leiter, welcome.
Thank you very much. I appreciate you doing this.
Nietzsche is famously a critic of morality, so I thought we could start with a terminological question. Normally, we use terms like morals and moral as synonyms for ethics and ethical. But as far as I understand, Nietzsche means something more specific by morality than simply ethics. So perhaps you could explain what that special sense of morality is.
The puzzle you confront when you’re reading Nietzsche is that he presents himself as a critic of morality. But at the same time, he does speak of things like higher moralities, or moralities that he doesn’t seem to be critical of. And it turns out that the terminology doesn’t help sort these cases out. That is, more often than not, he’s using one word—the German der Moral—in both these cases. That is, for both moralities he’s criticizing and moralities that he approves of, as in when he’s talking about higher moralities. There are some other terms that he uses, but the basic difficulty is you can’t distinguish between what he’s against and what he’s for based on the words he uses.
So I’ve introduced a term of art—what I call morality in the pejorative sense—to refer to what it is the morality that Nietzsche is critical of is supposed to have in common. What distinguishes the morality that he’s opposed to, as distinct from the higher moralities, or the moralities about which he has positive things to say? On my view, this morality in the pejorative sense (and this is the view set out in my 2002 book on Nietzsche on morality)—morality in the pejorative sense is marked by two broad sets of commitments.
On the one hand, a morality is a morality in the pejorative sense for Nietzsche—meaning it’s a target of his critique—if it’s characterized by certain kinds of descriptive assumptions about human agency, about what human beings are like, assumptions that Nietzsche takes to be essentially false. The obvious one is: he thinks certain kinds of moral views of which he is critical are committed to assumptions about free and autonomous agency—or agency that is free and autonomous in a way that would be sufficient to underwrite descriptions of moral responsibility—and he doesn’t think there is such agency. So that would be an example of a kind of descriptive assumption.
But on the other side, he’s targeting a set of views as morality in the pejorative sense that are characterized by certain kinds of normative contents. And here, it’s a matter of a disjunctive list. That is, it suffices for a morality to be a morality in the pejorative sense if it has one or more of these distinctive normative contents. For example, if it’s an egalitarian morality, or if it places a high value upon pity or compassion. If it views altruism and selflessness as the most important hallmark of genuinely moral behavior in a morally good life. If it places an unusually high value on happiness and views suffering, as Nietzsche likes to say, as an objection to life. Those are some of the characteristic normative contents.
Now, I think we have to define the concept in this partly disjunctive and rather complex way in order to capture the actual targets he’s got in mind. So to take a perhaps obvious example, he’s clearly a critic of utilitarianism, but it’s not the case that utilitarian moral philosophies have to be committed to a view about free agency. This is a nuance Nietzsche wasn’t particularly thinking of, but we have examples in 20th century utilitarian ethics of philosophers who are utilitarians—who assign a very high value to happiness (on some interpretation)—but at the same time are determinists and not compatibilists. Jack Smart is the example that’s familiar to modern students of moral philosophy.
Anyway, that’s the rough picture. Then in the book, I try to make the case that in fact he’s targeting moralities along all these different dimensions, but not every morality in the pejorative sense necessarily has all these features. Kantian morality comes closest. But of course, even Kantian morality has a rather funny relationship to the importance of values of happiness. So even there, it’s not complete. So that’s my basic idea.
So really, it turns out that the kind of critique that Nietzsche has is fairly sweeping. It can apply to a whole set of different things that we might call moralities. In a way, it’s quite a radical critique of a lot of moral thinking and moral philosophy. You’ve talked about what you might call a naturalist reading of Nietzsche, on which he comes out as quite a different kind of thinker about morality than many contemporary philosophers. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that and how that works out.
I suppose the subject on which my 2002 book and some prior papers have generated the most discussion and controversy is in the claim that we should read Nietzsche as a certain kind of philosophical naturalist—that we shouldn’t, as was more popular in the seventies and eighties, read him as a precursor of French postmodernism or poststructuralism. That we ought to see him as having a lot more in common with, on the one hand, Freud, who saw Nietzsche as an important predecessor, but then—to go within the mainstream of modern philosophy—see him as having a lot of affinities with the philosophical naturalists like Hume.
Now, we have to proceed carefully with the term naturalism, because it’s one of those terms that gets used in a lot of different ways. Some people want to be naturalists because they think it’s the righteous way to be, and other people use the term naturalism as kind of an epithet, term of abuse, and so on. So when I say Nietzsche is a philosophical naturalist, I mean something quite specific. We can distinguish in the first instance between kinds of naturalism that are essentially substantive, that represent a certain kind of metaphysical view about what actually exists. Substantive naturalists say the only things that exist are natural things and supernatural things don’t exist. This is, of course, famously uninformative without some way of demarcating the terrain of the natural, and there are lots of divisions among substantive naturalists, right? So physicalism is one kind of substantive naturalism. It’s very important to see that in my reading, Nietzsche is not any kind of physicalist, even though that’s a very popular view in a lot of contemporary English-speaking philosophy. He is a substantive naturalist in the fairly uncontroversial 19th century sense of: he’s a skeptic about the supernatural.
But I think the core of his naturalism is what I call methodological naturalism. And the idea of methodological naturalism is really an idea about how one does philosophy, and what one’s doing when one does philosophy. It’s the thought—to start with—that there aren’t any distinctively philosophical ways of knowing things or solving problems. There is nothing to be discovered via the a priori. Philosophy, in this respect, is just continuous with the empirical sciences. It is perhaps more reflective—more synthetic—than the typical practice of the empirical sciences, but it really isn’t different in kind. And part of the importance of describing Nietzsche as being this kind of methodological naturalist is that it explains something about why he’s not a physicalist. Like any good methodological naturalist, he is perfectly willing to countenance any kinds of entities that figure in successful a posteriori explanations of phenomena. So very importantly for Nietzsche, he proclaims himself the first psychologist. And he thinks psychological explanations are good explanations—better than explanations of the same phenomena in moral or religious terms. But there’s no pretense that he thinks the psychological phenomena that figure in good explanations of, say, people’s moral beliefs are going to be reducible to physical or natural phenomena.
And now one further wrinkle on the methodological naturalism: I refer to Nietzsche as what I call a speculative methodological naturalist. This makes him very much like Hume. You can be a methodological naturalist in the sense of drawing on a well-established paradigm in the empirical sciences to understand some phenomenon. The problem for both Hume and Nietzsche is: there is no paradigm for them to draw on. Nietzsche has one that he’s sort of taken by, which is developments in 19th century physiology. But Nietzsche, like Hume, also wants to come up with what is essentially a speculative psychological theory that’s predicated on certain claims about what human beings are like, and then exploit these claims to explain aspects of human beliefs and practices. You see a structure of argument in Nietzsche that is familiar from Hume: we take some class of beliefs—say, beliefs in causation, for Hume, or in the case of Nietzsche, beliefs in morality. Nietzsche and Hume are both skeptical that these beliefs can be rationally vindicated—that we would be warranted in holding them, based on our best rational criteria for what would warrant holding those beliefs.
And then, the puzzle arises: well, why do we hold these beliefs? What actually explains it? This is where the speculative naturalism kicks in as a way of providing a certain kind of psychological explanation for why creatures like us would nonetheless accept these beliefs, even though there’s no rational vindication for them. A famous example in the Nietzschean corpus is the puzzle that is really central to Nietzsche’s book On the Genealogy of Morality. Why is it that the ascetic ideal, as he calls it—that is, ideals of self-denial, self-abnegation, selflessness, which he thinks, quite plausibly, are characteristic of the moral doctrines of all the world’s major religions—his puzzle is: why would such an ideal have taken such a powerful hold on the human mind? How did we become, as he says, the ascetic planet par excellence? And the third essay of the Genealogy proposes a very complicated psychological explanation as to why it is that ascetic ideals would be very attractive to people, given what human beings are actually like. And if it makes sense, we can talk about the details of the explanation, but that’s probably one of the most famous cases in the corpus.
So we can say that Nietzsche was a naturalist, by which we mean that he thought the methods of philosophy should be continuous with the methods of science—the hard sciences—so that philosophy could study things in the same way that the hard sciences study things. One of the things that he thought could be studied was human nature. And in fact, he thought that the study of human nature could tell us something about why we have the moral beliefs that we have. For instance, the belief in acting for the good of others, rather than for the good of oneself, or in having pity and empathy for the sufferings of others, and so on, and so forth. What is it that you’d say to someone who, let’s say, really believed in this sort of morality—who thought that pity and altruism were good things? How would you get them to see Nietzsche’s side of the story?
Yes, well, this is a tricky question. Let me just add one minor qualification to what you were saying, which is that it’s a mistake to think of Nietzsche’s speculative methodological naturalism as depending only on the hard sciences. It’s true the hard sciences provide sort of a model of the kinds of explanations—the structure of explanation in terms of appeal to deterministic causes. (Put aside quantum physics, which was unknown to both Nietzsche and Hume.) So they’re a model in that sense. The only thing I hesitate about is: you might say, well, the hard sciences, they don’t include psychology. And of course, psychological explanation is the primary terrain on which Nietzsche operates.
But let’s go to the crux of your question, which is: how does Nietzsche propose to disabuse someone who is in the grips of morality in the pejorative sense? This is a bit tricky on a number of levels. One is—it’s my view and this is part of the reading that I defend—that Nietzsche is not really aiming to get everybody to give up on morality in the pejorative sense. As he sometimes says, herd morality for the herd. One of his charming phrases. But don’t let it reach out beyond that. On my picture, because Nietzsche has this view—and again, this is not that uncommon a 19th century view, and I think it’s in the background for Nietzsche—that people have different essential sort of psychophysical characteristics. There are different types of people. He sometimes just puts this in terms of talking about lower and higher types, or slavish and noble types, and categories like that. Nietzsche’s real concern is that there are people who might be higher types of human beings, and for Nietzsche, the paradigms of the highest types of human beings are creative geniuses. Goethe is the paramount example; nobody is treated more reverentially in the corpus than Goethe. Nietzsche also thinks that Nietzsche is an example of the relevant kind of creative genius!
So then, his picture is that nascent higher types—people who might potentially be Goethes, Nietzsches, Beethovens, and also Napoleons (though Napoleon’s a complicated example for his purpose)—that these higher types won’t in fact realize the kind of excellence of which they’re capable if they continue to take morality in the pejorative sense seriously. So it’s bad for their flourishing: that’s the core thought here. And he’s got a sort of speculative moral psychology about why it’s bad for their flourishing. That means the real question—and so I’m coming back to reformulating your question—the key question then becomes: how are we to disabuse potentially higher types of human beings of their essentially false consciousness about morality. That is, their false belief that this morality—morality in the pejorative sense—is really good for them? How are we going to shake them out of that conviction?
The answer is: there’s no one technique that Nietzsche employs. Nietzsche is a sophisticated student of rhetoric, and so he employs a lot of different techniques. But a lot of the techniques are informed by sort of his naturalistic picture of how moral psychology works. And so, an important part of that is that people’s moral commitments and moral beliefs are strongly driven by emotional, affective and unconscious factors. That what you believe about questions of right and wrong/good and bad is not simply a product of rational discursiveness. By the same token, people aren’t going to be dissuaded from their moral commitments through mere rational discursiveness. Which is why Nietzsche doesn’t write like most other moral philosophers—because he thinks that it’s not going to actually have any effect in transforming people’s consciousness about morality.
So how does he write? Well, the first thing to observe, of course, is that he writes in such a way as to get people in the gut. This is why he’s every college freshman’s favorite philosopher. He’s not this ponderous, pontificating, sanctimonious bellyacher, like Kant. No, he’s completely outrageous. He’s offensive. He’s rude. He makes jokes. He goes in for a great deal of hyperbole. And none of this, I think, is accidental. He says we don’t even see the slave revolt in morals anymore, because it’s been victorious. That is, he’s dealing with a readership for whom it’s never even occurred to them to think that the morality that they take for granted is something they ought to be skeptical about. So to start with, he’s got to use certain kinds of emotional and rhetorical provocations to loosen people’s attachment—to open up a space for critical reflection on this morality.
Now, he does employ lots of different kinds of arguments, so he intends to deploy the naturalistic picture of persons as a way of debunking assumptions about agency that the typical moral agent might in fact accept. So he takes it for granted, quite plausibly, that his typical 19th century German Protestant reader probably does think he has a certain kind of freedom of the will and is morally responsible for what he does. But at the same time, this reader, insofar as they’re part of a culture in which broader naturalistic themes are developing, can be made to see that there’s a certain kind of tension here. That he’s committed to assumptions about agency that don’t square with the kinds of things we know about persons, that we’re discovering about the role of unconscious motivations in behavior, about the role of physiology in behavior and attitudes, and so on, and so forth. So he is trying to give certain kinds of arguments, but they’re almost always embedded in a kind of rhetoric that’s very unusual in philosophy. But there’s a reason for that, because he thinks that’s the only way to actually effect the transformation in somebody’s moral consciousness. You can’t argue them out of it through conventional argumentative devices.
So in a way, it just scratches the surface. There’s a lot of different devices that he wants to use. If he can convince certain people that if you’re an altruist, you can’t actually be Beethoven, you know, that’s going to get people agitated. Because Beethoven, Goethe—these are cultural heroes. Napoleon, too, was a certain kind of cultural hero—a more complicated one in 19th century Europe. And if you convince people that there’s a fundamental incompatibility between taking seriously a morality of compassion—of altruism and egalitarianism—and these paragons of cultural excellence, that, too, is going to make at least some readers reflect critically on the morality they accept.
Though bear in mind this funny thing about Nietzsche, which is that Nietzsche is unusual (he may be unique, though I’d have to think about this) in being a philosopher who regularly disinvites people from reading his books. He often says, basically, this shouldn’t be heard by the wrong people. This book is only for certain kinds of readers. I write with such a style in order to exclude certain readers from understanding what the points are. And I take that to be of a piece with this underlying picture, which is that herd morality may be perfectly fine for the herd, but there are certain peoples for whom it is profoundly deleterious, and they’re the ones who have to be reached through this combination of philosophical arguments and rhetorical provocations that make up his corpus.
I think I remember a point in On the Genealogy of Morals, maybe towards the beginning. He’s talking about an earlier book of his, Beyond Good and Evil, and he says something like: if you haven’t been appalled by it at one point and delighted by it another, then you’re not in a position to understand him. And he describes the On Genealogy of Morals as a polemic. You know, this is part of the title. So this is really a very different kind of philosophy than we’re used to reading—he’s trying to get a reaction out of you, in a way.
One thing that you might wonder, based on what we’ve been talking about, is where his sense that this task is a necessary one—this task is a good one to be undertaking—comes from, because one of the things he wants to criticize in morality in the pejorative sense is this kind of universality. The idea that one scale of values will do for all and can be applied to all. So what if someone was to worry that underneath this doctrine of types—the idea of different kinds of morality for the herd, and for the higher beings—there’s a very general idea that what is good for people is what contributes to their flourishing as the kind of being they are? That’s a fairly substantive commitment, and it’s supposed to be a fairly universal commitment, and that that’s not supported in Nietzsche. So this might be a project that undermines itself in some way. What would the response to that claim be?
I think you’re certainly right that he thinks that if a morality is incompatible with a person’s flourishing, that’s a bad thing about that morality. Now, I think we have to be careful in distinguishing between two different kinds of claims about goodness. I’ll preface this by saying this is a bit controversial, but you’ll allow me the distinction for now, and maybe we’ll come back to it. There are claims about what I call in the book prudential goodness—what’s good or bad for an agent, or what some philosophers call non-moral goodness. It just has to do with well-being. And so, at the heart of his critique of morality in the pejorative sense is a claim about prudential goodness and badness. It’s the claim that morality in the pejorative sense is potentially bad for higher types of human beings.
But a claim about what’s good or bad for an agent—good or bad for their well-being—isn’t the only kind of claim about goodness that’s at issue. We might say that there’s also a claim of what we’ll just call moral goodness—but treat moral here as not meaning morality in the pejorative sense, but just all other kinds of goodness that aren’t non-moral goodness, and aren’t aesthetic goodness, and so on. And that kind of claim of moral goodness would be implicit in a statement like: ‘morality in the pejorative sense ought to be rejected because it is bad for higher human beings’. It’s my view—and this is another one of my controversial and debated interpretive claims about Nietzsche—that when it comes to judgments of moral goodness, he actually doesn’t think those judgments have any kind of objective standing, or any kind of universal standing. He is, as it were, a pure moral anti-realist about judgments about moral goodness. He thinks there is no objective fact of the matter—that these kinds of judgments are matters of evaluative taste. Which of course is another reason why you’d want to limit your readership to those who share this particular taste.
In other words, it’s perfectly possible that, let us say, a herd animal, whoever they are, mistakenly picked up one of Nietzsche’s books and started reading it, and got the whole argument straight. Perhaps they read it in conjunction with my book. So they got the entire argument straight and they said: you know, I see that morality in the pejorative sense is bad for higher human beings. But so what? It’s really good for the rest of us. It’s really good for the herd. I take it Nietzsche doesn’t think that person has made any kind of cognitive or other mistake. They just, as it were, have a different evaluative taste. It is Nietzsche’s evaluative taste—one which he insists upon with great rhetorical ferocity—that the flourishing of the highest human beings and the existence of cultural greatness are much more important than the well-being of the herd or the majority. In that sense, I don’t think he thinks the sort of crucial judgment on which his attack on morality depends—namely, that it’s an objection to morality because it is prudentially bad for higher human beings—can claim to any kind of objective or universal status. In fact, I think he expects the opposite. That is, different types of people will react very differently to that particular kind of criticism. So that’s how I would try to handle the dilemma that you fairly pose here.
A theme that’s come up throughout this conversation is the various ways in which Nietzsche is different from the other kind of philosophy that one might be used to reading. The kind that one might find in Moral Philosophy 101 at one’s English or American university. Something that you would perhaps be associated with amongst readers of Nietzsche is a desire to bring his work back into conversation with the Anglo-American mainstream. You say in your book that the tools of analytical philosophy—the clarity and the rigor that are valued—stand to produce worthwhile results in reading someone like Nietzsche. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that as a project—about the possibility of new directions in studying Nietzsche and analytical moral philosophy, and where we might expect that to go.
Let me just say that, as you know, I don’t think analytic philosophy exists. I not only don’t think it exists, I know it doesn’t exist, because whenever I press anyone to tell me what it is, they can’t do it. What’s left of what’s called analytic philosophy really is, it seems to me, just certain kinds of scholarly and stylistic commitment. Such as an attempt to be clear, to try to be precise about the concepts that you’re using to engage with the philosophical author dialectically, rather than just as an exercise in hagiography or hero worship. That’s all I mean by saying that analytic philosophy, when it did exist and as it developed in the 20th century, did provide some useful conceptual tools for trying to tease apart issues in Nietzsche—issues that may not always be clearly separated on the surface of the text.
But I think the more important question is: what would it mean to bring Nietzsche into the conversation of moral philosophy? He’s not going to be drawn into a lot of the conversation of existing moral philosophy, but there is an important strand in moral philosophy in the last 30 years which is very deeply naturalistic in roughly the sense I take to be at issue in Nietzsche. That is, there’s a strand in moral philosophy which is interested in questions like: how does moral motivation actually work? What do we know from empirical psychology about agency and what the capacities of human agents really are? It’s at the intersection of moral psychology and empirical psychology that I think it turns out there’s a very happy resonance with Nietzsche.
In my 2002 book, I was offering largely an exegetical, interpretive argument about how to understand Nietzsche and then read his Genealogy in light of this overarching architectonic of understanding him as a philosophical naturalist, on something like the model of Hume. But the thing about being a philosophical naturalist—a speculative methodological naturalist—is that the interest of your claims ultimately turns on whether you’ve got the facts right. If you’re lousy at speculation, then you can pretend to be aping the sciences all you want, and it’s just not very interesting.
So I’ve been interested in the question: how good was Nietzsche’s speculative moral psychology and his speculative psychology of agency? In work since then, I’ve been looking at that in the context of things that we’ve learned—or learned is sometimes too strong, as some of these results are inconclusive. But evidence that has been gathered in the empirical human sciences and especially psychology, behavioral genetics and so on. And I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that Nietzsche was pretty good at speculative naturalism—better than Hume, I actually think—though when I say this to the Hume scholars, they get very perturbed about it. I don’t want to pick on Hume unnecessarily; that’s a topic for a different discussion.
I think it turns out that Nietzsche had the overall structure of his picture of human beings, of the relatively small role that consciousness plays in human life, of the central role that the unconscious and the affective plays in moral judgment, of his skepticism about whether our conscious experience of willing was really indicative of an exercise of genuinely free and autonomous choice—that a lot of these themes that he pursues turn out to win a lot of support from work that’s being done in empirical psychology. So as a general matter, I’m just interested in the intersection between moral philosophy and empirical psychology. But I’ve been particularly interested in the extent to which Nietzsche’s moral psychology turns out to be plausible. And my conclusion so far is that it turns out to be actually quite plausible. I’ve written this paper with Joshua Knobe, who is a well-known leader in experimental philosophy. We’ve written a paper that if you line up three paradigms of moral psychology—what we call an Aristotelian, a Kantian, and a Nietzschean—it turns out that if you look at the underlying descriptive assumptions about agency and moral psychology these theories make, Nietzsche’s are the most plausible, hands down. And Aristotle and Kant are just making it up as they go. But of course, we all knew that about Kant. Kant’s moral psychology, that is—I will remain agnostic on other parts of the philosophy. So that’s where I see a particularly fruitful point of intersection.
Now, there has been a literature in English-speaking moral philosophy that raises criticisms about morality. There was the ‘morality demands too much’ literature, or that morality shouldn’t necessarily override all kinds of other considerations. I’ve written some looking at versions of this in Bernard Williams, and Susan Wolf, Michael Slote, and other people. Those have been the moral philosophers who have most often tried to claim Nietzsche. It seems to me that what they’re doing is a good deal less radical than what Nietzsche was, in fact, up to. I think this is particularly true of Bernard Williams, who in one sense did a lot of good by lending his prestige and authority to the legitimacy of reading Nietzsche. But on the other hand, I think what he actually got out of Nietzsche was relatively limited and quite tepid by comparison to what Nietzsche was really after. It goes back, Mark, to something you said early on, which is that in fact this is really very radical. It’s both a radical re-conception of what it is to be an agent, what the structure of the mind is like, what actually has value. Much more radical, I think, than anything we find in the mainstream of English-speaking moral philosophy.
Whether that will change remains to be seen. I think to the extent that more philosophers become interested in empirical psychology, there will be more interest in earlier figures who engage in the kind of speculative psychology in conjunction with doing moral philosophy, and Nietzsche would be a prime example of that.
Okay, I think that would be a good note to end on. Brian Leiter, thanks very much for speaking with us.
Thank you. Enjoyed it a great deal.
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