Brian Leiter: "Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement: Developing an Argument from Nietzsche"
Over at On the Human, a project sponsored by the National Humanities Center, Brian Leiter has been invited to post on the subject of "Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement: Developing an Argument from Nietzsche." The first few paragraphs are reproduced here, but we encourage to head over and read the entire article.
By “moral skepticism,” I shall mean the view that there are no objective moral ‘facts’ or ‘truths.’ Moral skeptics from Friedrich Nietzsche to Charles Stevenson to John Mackie have appealed to the purported fact of widespread and intractable moral disagreement to support the skeptical conclusion. Typically, such arguments invoke anthropological reports about the moral views of exotic cultures, or even garden-variety conflicting moral intuitions about concrete cases (such as abortion or the death penalty). How, it is claimed, could such disagreements persist if there were really objective moral facts? Nietzsche, I will argue, suggests a different kind of argument from moral disagreement that deserves more attention than it has received to date.
Nietzsche calls attention not to “ordinary” or “folk” moral disagreement, but rather to what should be the single most important and embarrassing fact about the history of moral theorizing by philosophers over the last two millennia: namely, that no rational consensus has been secured on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality. Is the criterion of right action the reasons for which it is performed or the consequences it brings about? If the former, is it a matter of the reasons being universalizable, or that they arise from respect for duty, or something else? If the latter, is it the utility it produces or the perfection it makes possible? If the former, is utility a matter of preference-satisfaction (as the economists often believe) or preference satisfaction under idealized circumstances—or is it, rather, unconnected to the preferences of agents, actual or idealized, but instead a matter of realizing the human essence or enjoying some ‘objective’ goods? And perhaps a criterion of right action isn’t even the issue, perhaps the issue is cultivating dispositions of character conducive to living a good life. And here, of course, I have merely canvassed just some of the disagreements that plague Western academic moral theory, not even touching on non-Western traditions, or radical dissenters from the mainstream of academic moral theory, such as Nietzsche himself.
Notice, too, that the disagreements of moral philosophers are amazingly intractable. Nowhere do we find lifelong Kantians suddenly (or even gradually) converting to Benthamite utilitarianism, or vice versa. Nietzsche thus locates disagreement at the heart of the most sophisticated moral philosophies of the West, among philosophers who very often share lots of other beliefs and practices. Yet what we find is that these philosophers remain locked in apparently intractable disagreement about the most important, foundational issues about morality. This persistent disagreement on foundational questions, of course, distinguishes moral theory from inquiry in the sciences and mathematics, not, perhaps, in kind, but certainly in degree. In the hard sciences and mathematics, intellectual discourse regularly transcends cultural and geographic boundaries and consensus emerges about at least some central propositions. How to explain the failure of moral theory to achieve anything like this?
Read the rest of the post at On the Human.