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Nietzsche and moral skepticism

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
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• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
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• Can we change the past? NO
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Here is an interesting short essay on the subject by Brian Leiter, with a good number of thoughtful, substantive replies.



  1. Andrew says:

    “Moral disagreement is, after all, an epistemic phenomenon, from which we propose to draw a metaphysical conclusion.”

    “Surely one possibility—dare I say the most likely possibility?—is that those who are professionally invested in normative moral theory as a serious, cognitive discipline—rather than seeing it, as Marxists or Nietzscheans might, as a series of elaborate post-hoc rationalizations for the emotional attachments and psychological needs of certain types of people (bourgeois academics, ‘slavish’ types of psyches)—will resist, with any dialectical tricks at their disposal, the possibility that their entire livelihood is predicated on the existence of ethnographically bounded sociological and psychological artifacts.”

    My question is whether it would be a fair characterization of these “sociological and psychological artifacts” as Smithian “moral sentiments”? It seems to me such an understanding works. So then I wonder, if we do not make the jump from moral disagreement (as a result of these different sentiments)to moral skepticism, how are we to have an understanding of the “scale” of moral realism on which these sentiments operate?

    To ask more clearly, and it is an honest question-i have no idea what i think, if Smith and Nietzsche (an odd coupling)are correct in that our individual morality is the product of a self-adjusting market of sentiments, but, (as some would suggest Smith asserts) if the obvious variation in moral understanding that such a system produces does not necessarily deny moral realism, then how are we to understand any conception of this realism which is not also simply the product of the “emergent” system of moral sentiments. How are we to conceive of a true moral scale without simply constructing the scale out of mechanistically shaped moral sentiments?

    In short, although disagreement is very plausibly just a result of ignorance (we are all still in the cave anyway, right?)then is it even possible to discuss sort of articulation of realism in an inquistivly honest manner? Or are we all just trying to justify our own particular product of our particular moral mechanism?

    I hope my questions have made even the least bit of sense…i’m not sure though.


  2. Mike says:

    I’m grateful to Wilcox and the contemporary ethical theory class for making the name dropping going on in that thread sensible to me.

    I really liked Jessica Berry’s comment given my attraction to Pyrrhonian skepticism and the Nz/Montaigne connection. I’m looking forward to her forthcoming book.

    Rob Sica pointed me to this lecture by Galen Strawson as a defense of Nz’s different type of skepticism (and as a master metaphysician) in his late period work.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Wow, Andrew, I think you’ve managed to land a whopper. I think one lesson to learn from Nz/Smith/Hume/Aristotle, and their contemporary descendants, is that if our morality is based on our humanity in some way or other (genes, evolution, social forces, etc), then it is perfectly possible that morality itself will be at least indeterminate on many matters. That is to say, there’s not enough “in us” to settle every question that can be raised about morality.Our nature may tell us that torturing innocents is wrong (maybe), but may not be able to tell us precisely when it’s okay to lie and when it isn’t, for example. Perhaps our natures provide only a rough guide to right/wrong.

    Now I suppose someone (like Kant or Mill) could insist that human nature only provides a rough guide, and independently of that guide there are moral facts (determined by reason, or by just the brute existence of moral facts). So one could be then a moral realist while at the same time admitting that any Smithian moral sentiment theory is ultimately inadequate.

    But Nz/Leiter’s argument is meant to cast doubt on this possibility, since there does not seem to be any noncontroversial way to articulate what makes moral facts factual. One might then fall back on Smith/Hume/Aristotle and say, “well, that’s the best we can do,” and one might well then have at least some moral facts, based on people’s moral feelings. But there is a large-scale antirealism hovering in the background, so long as there is skepticism about there being any deeper or more complete set of moral facts.

    If we can find the right date/time, I will be talking to SHAFT about this problem — namely, the worry naturalists should have about morality, a worry that too often is blithely ignored as we welcome a Darwinian account of our moral sentiments.


  4. Rob says:

    My point in bringing up Galen Strawson’s presentation in relation to Jessica Berry’s comment is that I think she may be saddling him with a form of skepticism that is more characteristic of his “middle period” works (i.e., up to the first edition of GS) than of his “late period” works. Strawson’s vindication of Nietzsche’s metaphysical probings, it seems to me, should encourage us to ascribe to Nietzsche something more robust than Pyrrhonian skepticism. But maybe she makes a compelling case in her forthcoming book, which is why I’m eager to read it.


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