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What if morality is objective but not absolute?
A thing can be objective and changing. Most things are.
Moral Psychology with Nietzsche
By Brian Leiter
Oxford University Press
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In his book Moral Psychology with Nietzsche, philosopher Brian Leiter argues that “there are no objective facts about what is morally right and wrong, good or bad.”
Rather, he argues, our moral judgements can be explained by our affective, or emotional, responses—and these affective responses are grounded in unchanging psychological facts about individuals. Differences in moral intuition and beliefs are primarily explained by physiological, hereditary differences. This, he argues, was Nietzsche’s own view of human morality, a view vindicated by recent social science research.
The book also argues against free will. The will, too, is determined primarily by individual physiological factors. So, bottom line: No objective moral values, no free moral agents, no moral responsibility.
In this way, Leiter challenges not only commonly held views of morality, but also popular “existentialist” interpretations of Nietzsche, which claim Nietzsche thinks the individual can create their own values through sheer force of will in the face of a meaningless universe.
Here I want to examine the first part, the “no objective moral values” part. (I touch on free will at the end.) I think that Leiter overstates his case, and I think there’s an account of morality that can reconcile the realist view (morality is objective) and the anti-realist view (morality is not objective). Likely this satisfies no one, but here goes.
Why morality feels objective
First, why do many people think morality is objective?
As I wrote about in my post on Iris Murdoch, we seem to have this feel, this sense, of goodness. We see it in other people, and we point to it, and we say, “There. That’s it.” For many people, right and wrong feel like a fact of the world, as real as a tree or a bench in the park.
Moreover, when we do something good or do something bad, we can feel the burden of conscience. Conscience is traditionally described as something inside of us, but it’s also something that’s over us—like the Furies of Greek mythology that pursue us, hound us, hang over our heads, like the “Angels of the Silences” in the Counting Crows song.
Morality feels bigger than us. In that way, it commands authority, even as it has no will or power of its own. It’s not escapable or dismissible, even if some people are dispositionally blind to it. What we mean then by objective is that it is external to one’s mind.
And so moral philosophers attempt to describe carefully the contours and the logic of this thing. They posit theories. They create models. They argue and debate just what this thing is and how it works.
Why Leiter thinks morality isn’t objective
Which leads to one of Leiter’s objections: After thousands of years, and centuries of debate, moral philosophers still disagree on morality—on both its fundamentals and its details. And there does not appear to be any empirical way, no evidence or test, that would eventually make the Kantians or the Aristotelians, for example, to lay down their arms.
That’s not like science, argues Leiter, which is our best method for knowing things objectively. Through the scientific method, scientists come to a consensus. Knowledge converges. New experiments are done, and scientists change their minds in response to the results.
So rather than positing that morality is objective, that we are all collectively sensing it but all disagreeing about it, could there be a more satisfying explanation? What if the reason people disagree is that people have different natures, different personalities? The difference between Kantian and the Aristotelian moral philosopher perhaps ultimately comes down to personal taste, personal gut feel. People choose philosophies (and moralities) that resonate with them—and that ultimately comes down to psychological or physiological differences, according to Nietzsche and Leiter.
To sum up the picture: Our physiology gives rise to unconscious drives, which lead to non-rational feelings, which give rise to thoughts, opinions, judgements, etc. And so these “type facts” about individuals are the ultimate cause of moral belief and action.
How morality is objective
However, as the book progresses, it’s clear that Leiter’s account needs something more to explain morality. After arguing that drives cause affects, Leiter adds, “Cultures, partly through the mechanisms of parental inculcation already noted (as well as concurrent social pressures), teach individuals to have particular affective responses to the very same drive.” One might feel an aversion to offending a dangerous enemy, Leiter argues, and one culture may inculcate a meta-feeling of cowardice (the drive is bad) or, in contrast, a meta-feeling of humility (the drive is good).
It seems to me that Leiter has revealed the true source of morality in this qualification—culture.
Culture can create affects beyond or even opposed to physical drives; and these are affects that we really care about when we discuss morality.
Culture is not a “type fact” of an individual’s physiology. It is, almost by definition, that which is shared between people rather than unique facts about one’s body or brain.
Culture exists outside of one’s own mind. There is no culture of one.
A thing can be objective and composite, objective and fuzzy, objective and perpetually changing. A cloud, for example. Each person approaches culture subjectively, but their understanding of their culture can change dramatically as they interact with more people and more cultures. Some aspects of culture change rapidly, like pop culture, while other aspects, like literacy and arithmetic are more stable. Morality may function the same way.
So, to answer the questions on the table: Is morality objective? Yes, it exists outside the individual’s mind as part of culture. Why can’t moral philosophers over 2,000+ years agree on the shape, structure, or details of morality? Because culture is a composite, fuzzy, and changing fact of the world.
Culture is not in me; I am in culture. And morality is part of culture—that’s why I can point to it, appeal to it, feel its pressure. It’s bigger than me and will exist long after me. That’s why we can reasonably and rationally appeal to it as an objective fact while still recognizing that it falls short of being absolute. Cruelty (not merely its outcomes) is as real, as hard, and as objective as AI, smartphones, and mRNA vaccines—which themselves are all just bits of culture.
This, to me, is the best coherent (albeit preliminary) explanation of the facts. But, as I said, it probably satisfies neither side. I think Leiter/Nietzsche underestimate the influence of culture in what we think and what we do. But I think that the traditional moral philosopher overestimates the perspicuity and stability of morality (i.e. its absoluteness).
How much of morality is determined by culture?
The final chapter of the book examines recent 21st Century scientific findings in psychology that give support to Nietzsche’s physiological explanations for our personalities and behaviors. (This same general picture is also described in the book The Nurture Assumption, which I recommend.)
The bottom line goes like this: As best we can generalize, human behaviors are roughly 50% due to heritability and 50% due to socialization.
Notably, studies have consistently shown that socialization comes almost entirely outside the home, unrelated to one’s parents! (This is the thesis of The Nurture Assumption.) Based on current social science (assuming it holds up), it’s likely that future counseling and therapy will involve a genetic analysis of behavioral markers, as well as talk therapy discussing your childhood friends rather than your parents.
Leiter is a bit dismissive of the socialization slice of the pie, as studies have also shown that, for the most part, people rationalize their behavior rather than act because of their reasons. (You do racist things, then make racist justifications; you don’t reason out racism, and then act racistly.) One could imagine that culture is just an epiphenomenal layer of rationalization on top of people just doing what they were going to do anyway; this seems to be Leiter’s view.
But culture serves a variety of purposes and provides its own affects, according to Leiter’s own argument. Someone might rationalize their behavior not because of a physiological drive but because there are other countervailing cultural requirements they are trying to meet. (If I stop doing X, I won’t be a Y anymore. I want to be a Y, so I will continue to do X, etc.) Culture, particularly as it shapes language, could be the controlling factor in what we can or can’t rationalize, and people just don’t go around doing whatever they want without any rationalizations.
Culture as second nature
Rather than seeing culture (and therefore moral reasoning) as a kind of thin layer of rationalization spread over powerful biological drives, we could just as easily see culture as something far deeper.
As in Leiter’s case of people acting racist, then coming up with racist rationalizations after the fact, what made people act racist impulsively in the first place? Was there a whole cultural and social context they intuited after years of living in a given society that certain kinds of people were of a lower class or status, and that they could get away with (or accrue status by) treating poorly? Just because people act racist and then rationalize it doesn’t mean their actions came primarily from physiological drives.
Perhaps surprisingly, objective but non-absolute morality is the ideologically conservative position. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it:
This position was enunciated most trenchantly by Burke, conservatism’s “master intellectual”, acknowledged by almost all subsequent conservatives. He rejected a priori reasoning in politics, notably claims to abstract natural rights, manifested most dramatically in the French Jacobin dream of destroying and rebuilding society. Burke holds that there is a practical wisdom in institutions that is mostly not articulable theoretically, certainly not in advance, but is passed down in culture and tradition.
Culture (which includes language, concepts, and values) delimits what is thinkable and doable. Morality, as part of culture, is not something one can step out of, anymore than one can step out of one’s language. And yet morality also changes over time—more than the moralist prefers, less than the existentialist hopes. As I wrote about the novel Lonesome Dove:
Culture is a collective dream that we all experience as individuals. And it seems to run—to run us—on its own rules. We find ourselves performing actions and saying words and playing roles that feel as natural as breathing. And yet these actions and words and roles have histories, are made out of dead people’s dreams. And these performances can end up tormenting us and those around us.
The difference between us and 19th Century cowpunchers is not physiology but culture. We are as caught as they were in the net of our own culture; the only difference is the possibilities our culture affords.
Postscript on freedom
Although I don’t discuss free will above, I think my explanation could also tell an interesting and plausible story for free will as well.
People with very similar personality traits (such as the Big Five, like conscientiousness or extroversion) can still end up acting or thinking in different ways; cultural niches explain these differences. Freud describes modern man this way:
Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent…
Culture makes humans who are physiologically indistinguishable from hunter-gatherers into cyborgs with all kinds of abilities and powers and capacities that didn’t exist before. Cultural complexity increases freedom from the point of view physiology.
And yet, from the cultural side, what makes some individuals just say NOPE to cultural imperatives? Social pressure makes the herd go one way, and some individuals are just like, “I can’t.” (Audre Lorde comes to mind.) I agree with Leiter that physiological differences probably do explain these differences. Particularly because, in many of these cases, the people themselves claim they could not do otherwise.
So far, this falls under the compatibilist account of free will—we are determined by both nature and culture, but “free” from either point of view. But here’s where things could get interesting: What if it’s more or less a 50/50 split? The critics of libertarian free will argue that a will outside of the deterministic flow of causation wouldn’t be a free will worth having. But what if this kind of free will—the existential leap of faith—sneaks in on the coin toss?
Perhaps, generally speaking, everybody wins but nobody wins completely. Insofar as we are determined by our physiology, we are free from cultural constraints. Insofar as we are determined by our enculturation and socialization, we are not fated by our biology. And insofar as neither side wins out conclusively, there’s a space for non-deterministic freedom as well.
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