Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement: Developing an Argument from Nietzsche

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?

Let us start with Nietzsche’s version of this argument. This passage is representative:

It is a very remarkable moment:  the Sophists verge upon the first critique of morality, the first insight into morality:–they juxtapose the multiplicity (the geographical relativity) of the moral value judgments [Moralischen Werthurtheile];–they let it be known that every morality can be dialectically justified; i.e., they divine that all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical—a proposition later proved on the grand scale by the ancient philosophers, from Plato onwards (down to Kant);–they postulate the first truth that a “morality-in-itself” [eine Moral an sich], a “good-in-itself” do not exist, that it is a swindle to talk of “truth” in this field.  (WP:428; KSA 13:14[116]).

This is a Nachlass passage, but it has many analogues in the published corpus and is consistent with a general picture Nietzsche has of the discursive pretensions of philosophers.  Consider his derisive comment in Beyond Good and Evil about Kant’s moral philosophy, which he describes as “[t]he…stiff and decorous Tartuffery of the old Kant, as he lures us on the dialectical bypaths that lead to his ‘categorical imperative’—really lead astray and seduce” (BGE:  5). Kant’s “Tartuffery” and Spinoza’s “hocus-pocus of mathematical form” in his Ethics are simply, Nietzsche says, “the subtle tricks [feinen Tücken] of old moralists and preachers of morals [Moralisten und Moralprediger].” As Nietzsche explains it:

They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, a kind of “inspiration”—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons sought after the fact.  They are all advocates who don’t want to be called by that name, and for the most part even wily spokesman for their prejudices which they baptize “truths.”  (BGE 5)

Later in the same book, Nietzsche notes that moral philosophers “make one laugh” with their idea of “morality as science,” their pursuit of “a rational foundation for morality,” which “seen clearly in the light of day” is really only a “scholarly form of good faith in the dominant morality, a new way of expressing it.”  Pointing at Schopenhauer’s attempt to supply a rational foundation for morality, Nietzsche says “we can draw our conclusions as to how scientific a ‘science’ could be when its ultimate masters still talk like children” (BGE 186). The real significance of the claims of moral philosophers is “what they tell us about those who make them” for they are “a sign-language of the affects” (BGE 187), betraying the psychological needs of those who make them.

How do these considerations, elliptical as some of them are, support a skeptical conclusion about the objective existence of moral facts? The Sophists, on Nietzsche’s account, advance two related claims:  (1) that “every morality can be dialectically justified” and; (2) that “all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical,” where “sophistical” is obviously meant to have the pejorative connotation that the apparent dialectical justification does not, in fact, secure the truth of the moral propositions so justified. The purported dialectical justification can fail in this way if either it is not a valid argument or some of the premises are false.  But, then, what is the force of the claim that “every morality can be dialectically justified”?  It must obviously be that every morality can have the appearance of being dialectically justified, either because its logical invalidity is not apparent or, more likely in this instance, because its premises, while apparently acceptable, are not true.

Yet Nietzsche goes further when he asserts that the second claim—namely, that “all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical”—is established (“proved” [bewiesen] he says) by the work of the philosophers from Plato through to Kant.  But in what sense do the moral philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hutcheson, Mill, Kant, and Schopenhauer et al. establish or “prove” that “all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical”? Nietzsche’s thought must be that all these philosophers appear to provide “dialectical justifications” for moral propositions, but that all these justifications actually fail. But that still does not answer the question of how the fact of there being all these different moral philosophies proves that they are sophistical, i.e., that they do not, in fact, justify certain fundamental moral propositions?

Here’s how the Nietzschean explanation might go. The existence of incompatible moral philosophies providing dialectical justifications for moral propositions is best explained as follows: (1) there are no objective facts about fundamental moral propositions, such that (2) it is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for moral propositions, even though (3) the best explanation for these theories is not that their dialectical justifications are sound but that they answer to the psychological needs of philosophers. And the reason it is possible to construct “apparent” dialectical justification for differing moral propositions is because, given the diversity of psychological needs of persons (including philosophers), it is always possible to find people for whom the premises of these dialectical justifications are acceptable.

The alternative, “moral realist” explanation for the data—the data being the existence ofincompatible philosophical theories about morality—is both less simple and less consilient.  First, of course, it posits the existence of moral facts which, according to the more familiar best-explanation argument I have defended elsewhere (“Moral Facts and Best Explanations” in E.F. Paul et al. (eds.), Moral Knowledge [Oxford:  Blackwell, 2001]), are not part of the best explanation of other phenomena.  Second, the moral realist must suppose that this class of explanatorily narrow moral facts are undetected by large number of philosophers who are otherwise deemed to be rational and epistemically informed.  Third, the moral realist must explain why there is a failure of convergence under what appear (and purport) to be epistemically ideal conditions of sustained philosophical inquiry and reflective contemplation across millennia. We can agree with Peter Railton that we lack “canons of induction so powerful that experience would, in the limit, produce convergence on matters of fact among all epistemic agents, no matter what their starting points” (“Moral Realism,” Philosophical Review [1986]), and still note that there exists a remarkable cross-cultural consensus among theorists about fundamental physical laws, principles of chemistry, and biological explanations, as well as mathematical truths, while moral philosophers, to this very day, find no common ground on foundational principles even within the West, let alone cross-culturally.

Moral realists—who, for purposes here, will just mean those who deny skepticism about moral facts—have developed a variety of “defusing explanations” (I borrow the phrase from John Doris and Alexandra Plakias) to block the abductive inference from apparently intractable moral disagreement to skepticism about moral facts. Moral disagreement is, after all, an epistemic phenomenon, from which we propose to draw a metaphysical conclusion.  The ‘defusing’ explanations of moral disagreement propose to exploit that fact, by suggesting alternate epistemic explanations for the disagreement, explanations that are compatible with the existence of objective moral facts. I want to consider here the most promising response.

The standard optimistic refrain from philosophers ever since “moral realism” was revived as a serious philosophical position in Anglophone philosophy in the 1980s has been that under improved or idealized epistemic conditions—conditions of full information and rationality—there would be convergence on the objective moral facts.

With respect to very particularized moral disagreements — e.g., about questions of economic or social policy — which often trade on obvious factual ignorance or disagreement about complicated empirical questions, this seems a plausible retort. But for over two hundred years, Kantians and utilitarians have been developing increasingly systematic versions of their respective positions.  The Aristotelian tradition in moral philosophy has an even longer history. Utilitarians have become particularly adept at explaining how they can accommodate Kantian and Aristotelian intuitions about particular cases and issues, though in ways that are usually found to be systematically unpersuasive to the competing traditions and which, in any case, do nothing to dissolve the disagreement about the underlying moral criteria and categories. Philosophers in each tradition increasingly talk only to each other, without even trying to convince those in the other traditions.  And while there may well be ‘progress’ within traditions — e.g., most utilitarians regard Mill as an improvement on Bentham—there does not appear to be any progress in moral theory, in the sense of a consensus that particular fundamental theories of right action and the good life are deemed better than their predecessors.  What we find now are simply the competing traditions — Kantian, Humean, Millian, Aristotelian, Thomist, perhaps now even Nietzschean — who often view their competitors as unintelligible or morally obtuse, but don’t have any actual arguments against the foundational principles of their competitors. There is, in short, no sign — I can think of none — that we are heading towards any epistemic rapprochement between these competing moral traditions. Are we really to believe that hyper-rational and reflective moral philosophers, whose lives, in most cases, are devoted to systematic reflection on philosophical questions, many of whom (historically) were independently wealthy (or indifferent to material success) and so immune to crass considerations of livelihood and material self-interest, and most of whom, in the modern era, spend professional careers refining their positions, and have been doing so as a professional class in university settings for well over a century — are we really supposed to believe that they have reached no substantial agreement on any foundational moral principle because of ignorance, irrationality, or partiality?

Does this line of argument prove too much?  Is not the apparently intractable disagreement among moral philosophers regarding foundational questions mirrored in many other parts of our discipline?  Are not metaphysicians and epistemologists also  locked in intractable disagreements of their own? Think of debates between internalists and externalists in epistemology, or between presentists and four-dimensionalists in the philosophy of time.  If disagreement among moral philosophers supports an abductive inference to denying the existence of moral facts, what, if anything, blocks that inference in all these other cases?

Some recent writers (such as Paul Bloomfield and Russ Shafer-Landau) think this kind of “companions in guilt” consideration defeats the argument from disagreement.  It is not entirely clear why they rule out, however, the other natural conclusion.  Nietzsche, as far as I can see, has no reason to resist it, since he believes that, as an explanatory matter, the moral commitments of the philosopher are primary when it comes to his metaphysics and epistemology.  Nietzsche writes:

I have gradually come to realize what every great philosophy so far has been:  namely the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; in short, that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constitute the true living seed from which the whole plant has always grown.  In fact, to explain how the strangest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really come about, it is always good (and wise) to begin by asking:  at what morality does it (does he–) aim?  (BGE 6)

Since the “morality” at which the philosopher aims is to be explained in terms of his psychological needs and drives, and since these differ among philosophers, it will be unsurprising that there are a diversity of moral views, and philosophical systems purportedly justifying them—and it will be equally unsurprising that this same diversity, and intractability, spills over into metaphysical and epistemological systems, since they are just parasitic on the moral aims of the philosophers! Nietzsche, at least, then has good reason to bite the skeptical bullet about much philosophical disagreement. (Of course, we would need to think carefully about individual cases of philosophical disagreement, since not all of them, in all branches of philosophy, are as intractable or as foundational as they are in moral philosophy.)

That still leaves a slightly different version of the worry that the argument “proves too much.” For surely most philosophers will not conclude from the fact of disagreement among moral philosophers about the fundamental criteria of moral rightness and goodness that there is no fact of the matter about these questions, as I claim Nietzsche does.  But why not think that this meta-disagreement itself warrants a skeptical inference, i.e., there is no fact about whether we should infer moral skepticism from the fact of disagreement about fundamental principles among moral philosophers, since philosophers have intractable disagreements about what inferences the fact of disagreement supports?

Again, however, we need to be careful about the data points and the abductive inferences they warrant. The question is always what is the best explanation for the disagreement in question, given its character and scope.  The “meta-disagreement”—about whether disagreement in foundational moral theory really warrants skepticism about moral facts—is, itself, of extremely recent vintage, barely discussed in the literature. Don Loeb raised it in its most explicit form in an important 1998 paper (“Moral Realism and the Argument from Disagreement,” Philosophical Studies).

Even if, after extended critical discussion, the meta-disagreement continues to persist, that still would not support the meta-skeptical conclusion that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not disagreement in foundational moral theory supports skepticism about moral facts.  For before we are entitled to that conclusion, we would have to ask what the best explanation for the meta-disagreement really is? 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.  Nothing in the argument here establishes that conclusion, but nor is there any reason to think it would not be the correct one in the face of meta-disagreement about the import of fundamental disagreement in moral philosophy.

32 comments to Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement: Developing an Argument from Nietzsche

  • Leiter’s Nietzschean Argument for Moral Scepticism: A Critique

    Ralph Wedgwood

    Brian Leiter has presented his Nietzschean argument for moral scepticism with characteristic clarity and rhetorical eloquence.

    Nonetheless, as I shall argue here, the argument suffers from three different but equally fatal flaws:

    1. The basic premise of the argument is unjustified and probably false;
    2. The inference of the argument is weak – the premises give much less support to the conclusion than Leiter implies;
    3. Anyway, if the argument were correct, it would be radically self-defeating.

    My overall conclusion is that we should give no credence whatsoever to this Nietzschean argument.

    1. Leiter’s basic premise

    The basic premise of Leiter’s Nietzschean argument is that there is pervasive intractable disagreement among moral philosophers. The explicit conclusion of the argument is that there are “no objective moral ‘facts’ or ‘truths’.” So the conclusion is not merely that there is a certain narrow domain of moral questions where there are no objective moral truths. It is that there are no objective moral truths at all – no objectively true answers to any moral questions whatsoever.

    If this premise is to have any hope of supporting this sweeping conclusion, it seems that the premise must be read as claiming that there is fundamental disagreement among philosophers about all (or almost all) moral questions. But this claim seems extremely disputable, to say the least.

    It is true that moral philosophers disagree about foundational moral questions. (What is the ultimate first principle of ethics? Is it a version of consequentialism or what?) However, there is very little disagreement about more concrete moral issues. All moral philosophers agree that we are normally obliged to keep our promises, to refrain from telling lies and killing or torturing people, and to help those who are in need (especially when no one else is in a position to help).

    In fact, almost the only concrete cases that the adherents of different moral theories disagree about are the cases involving runaway railway trolleys that have been famously studied by philosophers like Judith Thomson (2008). These are highly unusual cases: in these cases, there are very few courses of action available to the person concerned, and the person has perfect knowledge of what the outcome of each these courses of action would be. In the overwhelming majority of real-life concrete cases, the extent of the disagreement that exists among contemporary philosophers does not seem particularly unusual, when compared with the extent of the disagreements that exist among (say) legal scholars or economists or the like.

    In fact, however, Leiter’s formulation of his key premise only implies that there is intractable disagreement concerning “substantive foundational propositions”. If the premise is read in this much narrower way, it seems much less likely to support the argument’s sweeping conclusion. Nonetheless, even this much more limited premise is not obviously true. This is because it is not clear how strongly these philosophers believe the positions that they defend and advocate in their work.

    Philosophy has, ever since the days of Socrates, had a culture of adversarial debate. So it is common for philosophers to adopt a position that they defend vigorously in debate (while also vigorously criticizing the rival philosophical positions that are incompatible with their own). But it does not follow that these philosophers are totally convinced of the truth of their own position (or even of the falsity of the rival positions). Philosophers may only have a very weak level of belief in the position that they are defending. That is, they may only regard their favoured theory as being slightly more likely to be true than any of the rival theories that deserve to be taken seriously.

    Let me illustrate this point with an artificially precise example. Suppose that there are three theories that I believe to deserve to be taken seriously about a certain philosophical issue – call these three theories T1, T2, and T3. Now suppose that I assign a 30% probability to T1 and to T2, and a 40% probability to T3. Then I regard T3 as more likely than any of its rivals, even though I believe that the probability of its being true is only 40%, while the probability of its being false is a full 60%. Still, even this low level of belief may make it rational for me to pursue a strategy of developing this theory T3 and defending it in debate, since this strategy may be a good way to advance philosophical understanding.

    Such debate can advance philosophical understanding even if it does not give a conclusive answer to all the ultimate theoretical questions. Such debate can provide illuminating answers to a host of smaller questions: What are the most promising forms that each kind of answer to these ultimate questions can take? What are the strong and the weak points in each of these answers? And so on. At all events, we cannot infer from the fact that philosophers have a culture of vigorous debate that philosophers “disagree” with each other in the strong sense of being fully convinced of incompatible positions.

    Thus, it is doubtful whether the basic premise of Nietzschean argument is really true. Disagreement among moral philosophers is much less extreme than it may appear for two reasons:

    a. This disagreement is restricted to the most abstract and foundational questions of moral philosophy, and does not extend to real-life concrete questions (on which contemporary moral philosophers are largely in agreement).

    b. It is not clear that philosophers, if they are clearheaded, are really convinced of the precise moral theories that they defend; they may have only a weak level of belief instead.

    2. Leiter’s inference

    According to the Nietzschean argument, moral scepticism is the best explanation of the sort of disagreement that exists among moral philosophers. But is this really the best explanation of this disagreement? E.g., imagine an objectivist view of moral truths that would be parallel to the view of normative truths that I have defended in my own work (Wedgwood 2007). Is it really so hard for an adherent of this view to explain this sort of disagreement?

    It seems that Leiter’s main objection to objectivist attempts at explaining philosophical disagreement is that it is intrinsically implausible to claim that moral truths exist but “are undetected by large numbers of philosophers who are otherwise deemed to be rational and epistemically informed”. Indeed, he suggests that if there were objectively correct answers to philosophical questions, then rational and well-informed philosophers engaging in “sustained philosophical inquiry and reflective contemplation across millennia” would have “converged” on those objectively correct answers.

    This objection seems to rest on the curiously Whiggish assumption that the truth will always reveal itself to sufficiently intelligent and conscientious inquirers. But in fact, it seems clear that some truths are intrinsically harder to come to know than others. Indeed, as Timothy Williamson (2000) has argued, there are always certain truths that we will never be in a position to know. There are of course many truths that we do know (e.g., I know that right now I am listening to Bach on my iPod), but other truths are in effect hidden from us, concealed in darkness that our cognitive powers are barely able to penetrate.

    In general, in almost every science and area of intellectual inquiry, there are both the simple questions that every competent inquirer is in a position to answer correctly, and also the murkier questions that are fantastically hard to answer correctly, at least with any reasonable confidence. Let me give two examples.

    My first example is history. Some of the questions of history are simple (‘Did the South lose the American Civil War?’, ‘Was Julius Caesar assassinated?’). But there are also other harder questions. E.g., there has been a vigorous debate among British historians, for at least the last 50 years, about whether the Reformation in 16th-century England was principally a top-down process, imposed by the country’s political elite on a largely unwilling or indifferent populace, or whether it was fundamentally a bottom-up process, in which Protestant ideas sparked off a mass religious movement that the authorities were forced to try to manage as best they could (see e.g. Duffy 1992). There is no sign that this debate is about to be resolved within the foreseeable future.

    My second example is physics. Physicists have certainly converged on answers to some questions. E.g. there has been impressive convergence among physicists over the last 100 years on the theory of statistical thermodynamics. But other questions remain fiercely contested. Everyone agrees that string theory is mathematically elegant, but is it the true theory of the physical universe? Some physicists are optimistic that string theory will turn out to be correct, while other physicists object that the theory is intrinsically implausible and practically impossible to test. (For a popular account of this debate, see Holt 2006.) It is conceivable that physicists will eventually acquire empirical evidence that will settle this debate, but it seems unlikely that this will happen any time soon.

    I shall not try to explain here why some questions are so much harder to answer than others. But it is surely plausible that this point is true of philosophy as well. There are the easy questions of philosophy. (E.g. one of the easy questions of moral philosophy is: Is it normally wrong to break a promise?) But there are also other harder questions. (E.g. it is harder to know to what the ultimate explanation is of why it is normally wrong to break a promise.) Questions about the “substantive foundational propositions” of moral philosophy (to use Leiter’s phrase) seem to be among the ultimate philosophical questions that it is extremely hard to answer correctly with a reasonably high degree of confidence.

    One might complain that this point explains why we can never be certain of the correct answer to these ultimate philosophical questions. It does not explain why philosophers hold false beliefs about these matters. As I have already indicated, I do not think that philosophers – at least if they are rational – are strongly convinced of the truth of their favoured answer to these ultimate questions. So the problem is just to explain how it could be that I assign a 40% probability to the philosophical theory T3, and only a 30% probability to the rival theory T1, if in fact the true theory is T1 and not T3. But if these issues are just intrinsically difficult and obscure, it is not surprising that different philosophers give slightly different probability assignments to the various different theories in this domain.

    Even if it were clearly established that many philosophers really are firmly convinced of their favoured answer to these ultimate questions, this conviction can be explained by a familiar kind of irrationality. Philosophers can easily “fall in love” with the theory that they are defending, and so come to believe the theory with greater confidence than they are really entitled to.

    Indeed, the institutions of academic philosophy make it easy to explain why this sort of irrationality might arise. On the easier questions, philosophers are penalized for making mistakes, by getting lower grades while they are students, and by failing to achieve success after they join the profession. But given the extreme difficulty of knowing the right answer to the harder questions (including these ultimate questions), there is no institutional penalty for giving what are in fact incorrect answers to these harder questions. Instead, philosophers are rewarded for developing original answers to these harder questions. It probably helps to motivate a philosopher to put in the hard graft that is required to develop an original answer to one of these harder questions if the philosopher has a fairly high degree of confidence in the correctness of this answer. So it is not hard to explain why some philosophers have a somewhat higher degree of confidence in the correctness of their favoured theory than they are rationally entitled to.

    At all events, this sort of explanation of the fact that debates in moral philosophy rumble on and on, without any sign of being about to be resolved any time soon, seems at least as plausible as Leiter’s Nietzschean explanation, that there are no objective moral truths at all. So it seems to me that the fact of persistent debate among moral philosophers does not provide nearly as much support to moral scepticism as Leiter would have us believe.

    3. Why the Nietzschean argument is self-defeating

    Towards the end of his essay, Leiter considers the objection that the Nietzschean argument may be self-defeating: i.e., the argument may apply to itself, and thereby undermine itself. He dismisses this idea, on the grounds that it is not clear that there is long-standing unresolved disagreement about whether unresolved moral disagreement among philosophers supports moral scepticism.

    However, this dismissal of the threat of self-defeat seems to me altogether too breezy. There has been a debate among philosophers, ever since the disagreement between Socrates and Protagoras that was discussed in Plato’s Theaetetus, about whether there are any domains of meaningful questions in which there are “no objective facts”. This debate also shows no sign of being about to be resolved. So Leiter’s argument implies that there is no objective fact of the matter about whether there is any domain of questions on which there is no objective fact of the matter.

    If there is no objective fact of the matter about a certain question p, it is surely pointless to engage in debate about p, trying to persuade other people who disagree with you about p. (It would be at least as pointless as trying to persuade someone that vanilla ice cream is yummier than chocolate ice cream.) These other people should just ignore your attempts to persuade them about p. So Leiter’s argument implies that people who are inclined to believe that there are no meaningful questions on which there are “no objective facts” should just ignore any attempt to persuade them that there are questions of this kind.

    Several of Leiter’s opponents on this issue will be philosophers who are inclined to believe that there are no meaningful questions on which there is no objectively correct answer. (Indeed, I am one of these philosophers myself.) But Leiter’s argument is itself an attempt to persuade the readers of this web site that there are some questions of this kind – namely, moral questions. So, it seems, the Nietzschean argument is effectively telling its opponents that it is an argument that they should simply ignore. In this way, as it seems to me, the argument is entirely self-defeating.

    References

    Duffy, Eamon (1992). The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
    Holt, Jim (2006). “Unstrung”, The New Yorker, October 2.
    Thomson, Judith Jarvis (2008). “Turning the Trolley”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36, no. 4: 359-374.
    Wedgwood, Ralph (2007). The Nature of Normativity (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
    Williamson, Timothy (2000). Knowledge and Its Limits (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

  • Brian’s post provides an extremely lucid and compelling interpretation of some potentially obscure elements of Nietzsche’s thought. In addition, Brian’s argument, if successful, would provide us with a powerful critique of the very practice of moral philosophy. For he starts with two premises that seem indisputable: that we can dialectically justify mutually inconsistent claims about moral propositions (witness the disputes between Kantians and Utilitarians), and that agents experience strong psychological pressures to embrace particular moral propositions (witness how fervently some wish to believe, and some wish to deny, that abortion is wrong). If he were correct in claiming that we could start with these uncontroversial premises and use them to construct a critique of moral philosophy itself, this would be an extremely significant consequence.

    Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced that these two claims give us any grounds for critiquing moral philosophy. To show this, I’ll first reconstruct the argument, and then raise a criticism of it.

    Brian starts with the following truism: there exist incompatible moral theories, such as Kantianism and Utilitarianism, which provide justifications for incompatible moral propositions. In general:

    Datum to be explained: there exist incompatible X theories providing dialectical justifications for incompatible X propositions.

    (In the case that concerns Brian, X=moral.) Brian argues that the best explanation of this datum is as follows:

    (1) There are no objective facts about X propositions, so
    (2) It is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for incompatible X theories, even though
    (3) The best explanation for why a particular agent embraces a particular X theory is that this theory answers to the agent’s psychological needs.

    My question is why, exactly, this is supposed to be the best explanation for the datum. In particular, I think we can grant (2) and (3) while denying (1). I’ll argue that the conjunction of (2), (3), and the negation of (1) provides an equally compelling explanation of the datum.

    To see this, simply consider a more prosaically factual matter of dispute: economics.

    (1a) There are objective facts about economic propositions,
    (2a) It is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for opposing economic theories, and
    (3a) The best explanation for why a particular agent embraces a particular economic theory is that the theory answers to the agent’s psychological needs.

    Claims (1a) and (2a) seem to me indisputable. Claim (3a) is plausible in general, and obvious with respect to certain agents (one thinks of the pundits on cable news, for example). So here we have a case in which the general claims (2) and (3) hold, but nonetheless there are objective facts about the matter in question.
    To clarify the point, we might consider a more concrete economic example:

    (1b) There are objective facts about whether decreased government regulation of banking was partially responsible for the recent economic crisis.
    (2b) It is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for opposing answers to this question, even though
    (3b) The best explanation for why a particular agent embraces a particular theory about the government regulation of banking is that the theory answers to the agent’s psychological needs.

    For example, an investment banker is going to face strong psychological pressures inclining him to believe that decreased government regulation is beneficial. (After all, it’s certainly beneficial for him.) And, as anyone who tunes into cable news knows, it is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for opposed answers to this question. Nonetheless, (1b) seems true.

    We might also consider an example closer to Nietzsche’s heart. Surely, Nietzsche thinks that there are objective facts about theology. One such objective fact is this: there is no such thing as a god. So we might construct the following argument:

    (1c) There are objective facts about theological propositions.
    (2c) It is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for incompatible theological theories, even though
    (3c) The best explanation for why a particular agent embraces a particular theological theory is that the theory answers to the agent’s psychological needs.

    A few words of explanation. The truth of (2c) is established by the fact that philosophy provides us with a number of ontological arguments, religious and popular texts provide us with still more. It seems to me that we have persuasive reasons for thinking that (3c) is true. Nietzsche regards (1c) as obviously true—for example, he repeatedly claims that it’s an objective fact that god does not exist, that there is no afterlife, etc.

    So here we have a situation that could precisely mirror moral philosophy. Although there is an objective fact about (e.g.) whether there is a god, agents, under strong pressure, accept a variety of incompatible theological theories that yield incompatible claims about whether there is a god. Just so, although there’s an objective fact about whether (e.g.) abortion is wrong, agents, under strong pressure, accept a variety of incompatible moral theories that yield incompatible claims about whether abortion is wrong.

    As these examples indicate, it is hard to see why claims (2) and (3) have any bearing on whether there are objective facts about the topic in question. In general, the mere fact that we can construct apparent dialectical justifications for opposing conclusions, and the fact that these dialectical justifications answer to psychological needs, seems completely independent of the question whether there are objective facts about the topic in question. I don’t see any reason for thinking that moral judgments are different.

    Now, Brian does claim that the idea that there are objective facts about moral judgments faces three distinctive problems:

    “First, of course, it posits the existence of moral facts which, according to the more familiar best-explanation argument I have defended elsewhere (“Moral Facts and Best Explanations” in E.F. Paul et al. (eds.), Moral Knowledge [Oxford: Blackwell, 2001]), are not part of the best explanation of other phenomena. Second, the moral realist must suppose that this class of explanatorily narrow moral facts are undetected by large number of philosophers who are otherwise deemed to be rational and epistemically informed. Third, the moral realist must explain why there is a failure of convergence under what appear (and purport) to be epistemically ideal conditions of sustained philosophical inquiry and reflective contemplation across millennia.”

    In response, let me simply point out that the same things are true about theological judgments. Nietzsche clearly asserts that it is an objective fact that there is no god. Nonetheless, this theological fact remains undetected by a large number of people who are otherwise rational and epistemically informed. And it’s easy to see why there is a “failure of convergence”: as Nietzsche emphasizes, many agents experience a strong psychological need to believe in the existence of god, and hence embrace spurious theological justifications and arguments. None of this bears on the fact that there is no god. (One can make similar points about the economics example.)

    For these reasons, I do not think that Brian’s version of the argument from disagreement succeeds. Nevertheless, Brian’s post brings into view a series of intriguing questions about the psychological pressures that will incline particular agents to embrace particular philosophical theories. Although this is a central topic in Nietzsche’s texts, it is neglected both in Nietzsche scholarship and in contemporary moral philosophy. As Brian’s post makes clear, it certainly merits further reflection.

  • Julian Young

    Comments on Brian Leiter’s
    Moral Scepticism and moral Disagreement
    by
    Julian Young
    Nietzsche argues from the fact of unresolved, and seemingly irresolvable disagreement concerning ‘foundational propositions’ about morality to, in Brian Leiter’s formulation, the absence of ‘moral facts’. Now it seems to me that Nietzsche’s conclusion is clearly false. ‘One should keep one’s promises’, ‘Parents should care for their children’, ‘Human beings should not be uses in as mere means’, ‘Gods should be worshipped’, ‘Wise men should be respected’, ‘Beauty should be admired’ seem to me simply true. To deny any of these propositions would be to exhibit linguistic incompetence: to deny that promises should be kept or that parents should care for their children would exhibit a failure properly to grasp the meaning of ‘promise’ or ‘parent’. And in fact, none of the warring ethical theorists do deny any of these propositions: Kantians, utilitarians, virtue ethicists and Nietzscheans all agree that parents should care for their children. The real question, therefore, seems to me this: how is it that, in spite of an overwhelming area of agreement in ethical judgments – cross-cultural agreement no less than agreement between ethical theorists – the latter are locked into apparently irresolvable disagreement?
    Nietzsche favours a psychological explanation: differences in ethical theory reflect irremovable differences in personality. Philosophy in general and moral theory in particular is autobiography. In my judgment, however, intellectual error is a better explanation.
    The above ‘moral truths’, as I have called them, all become uncertain in particular cases. Though they are presumptively true, reasonable people may at least have doubts about their application in exceptional circumstances. The captain who orders the sick man to be thrown out of the lifeboat in order to give the remaining nineteen a chance of rowing to safety is using the sick man in a purely instrumental way, yet one has some inclination to say that in this rare and extraordinary circumstance the truth ‘Never use a human being in a purely instrumental way (‘as a mere means’)’ can be overridden. But one also has some inclination to say, that, whatever the consequences for the nineteen, no human being should be treated in that way. Utilitarianism postulates a general principle that validates the former inclination, Kantianism a universal principle to validates the latter. It seems to me, however, that they are both mistaken. In a few, extraordinary cases (which usually only exist in the minds of philosophers) there is simply no right answer to the question of what is the right thing to do. Note, however, that to infer from the existence of such undecidable cases to the absence of moral truth would be as fallacious as arguing from the fact that sometimes we can’t decide whether a man is bald or hairy to the conclusion that there is never a ‘fact’ of the matter as to whether someone is bald or hairy.
    My suggestion, therefore, is that the real explanation of irreconcilable disagreements between moral theorists is that they seek to discover exceptionless principles when in fact moral truths can only ever be ‘for the most part’ truths. And if we ask why that should be believed, the answer, I think, is that the paradigm of ‘theory’ is taken to be the theory in the natural science. Since the laws of (at least traditional) scientific theory were exceptionless, so, it is felt, the principles of moral theory must be exceptionless too. Certainly that seems to be what Kant thought. As Newton’s laws of motion were universal and exceptionless so, too, should be the ‘laws’ of the heart, the ‘moral law’.

  • Brian Leiter’s thought-provoking paper starts out with an empirical claim and then uses this empirical claim to argue for a metaphysical conclusion. The empirical claim is that research in moral philosophy does not lead to any convergence in views; the metaphysical conclusion is that there are no moral facts.

    Reading through this argument, I was struck by the thought that Leiter’s empirical claim might have some deeply incendiary and philosophically significant implications in its own right. Suppose we put aside the project of using empirical observations to get at metaphysical truths. Suppose we even assume that there is some way of refuting Leiter’s conclusion and holding on to the view that there actually are moral facts. Still, if Leiter’s empirical claim is correct, we end up with a quite radical conclusion: it might be the case that there are moral facts, but whatever methods moral philosophers have been using, these methods do not in any way help people to converge on those facts.

    But notice how striking a claim that is all by itself. At this point, we find that different moral philosophers hold different views. We might now proceed in either of two ways. One approach would be to continue our practice of using the methods of moral philosophy to figure out whether these views are correct; another would be to abandon this practice entirely and give up on the whole project of moral philosophy as it is currently conceived. Well, if Leiter is correct in his empirical claim, the methods of moral philosophy do not cause people to converge. Hence, a fortiori, these methods do not cause people to converge on the truth. So if the aim is simply to maximize the probability of arriving at the truth, there is really no reason to continue using these methods rather than abandoning them entirely.

    But then it begins to seem that Leiter’s critique of contemporary moral philosophy might not even need any sort of metaphysical grounding. If we merely content ourselves with the empirical claim that the methods of moral philosophy do not help people to converge, can we arrive just by that claim at a radical critique of the enterprise of moral philosophy as it is now practiced?

  • Paul Gowder

    In a brief comment such as this, space only really permits the (partial, but still far too long) exploration of one point, as follows: Is the nonexistence of moral facts really the best explanation for the fact of moral disagreement? I would like to offer a friendly amendment to Brian Leiter’s compelling and thought-provoking Nietzschean explanation. It is very hard to resist his claim that persistent moral disagreement suggests that the arguments of philosophers about moral theory are not truth-tracking, and I don’t propose to try. Instead, I propose to suggest that it’s possible to explain why these arguments might not be truth-tracking without resorting to the nonexistence of moral facts.

    Rather, moral disagreement might be explained by the corruption of our capacity to make moral judgments. We have the capacity to make judgments about morality, a capacity that consists, depending on one’s theory of moral judgment, in (for example) some combination of our intuitions about practical questions and our rational ability to combine those intuitions in reflective equilibrium. In this fashion, we generate theoretical moral judgments of the sorts about which, as Brian points out, philosophers have so many disagreements. Why, then, the disagreements? Because philosophers, like ordinary people, have their moral judgment corrupted by other cognitive and social phenomena. Specifically, they have their moral judgment corrupted by self-interest, by ideology (in the Marxist sense), by indoctrination and socialization, and, most generally, by motivated cognition appearing in a multitude of forms (self-image management, the revision of moral beliefs following inconsistent behavior as a form of cognitive dissonance reduction, confirmation bias, etc.). As each of us is exposed to different sorts of epistemic corruption in virtue of our different interests and locations in the social world, our moral beliefs diverge.

    We can call this alternative the Platonic explanation, as it is loosely inspired by some arguments about interpreting Plato’s moral psychology and the tripartite soul (in particular see the work of Hendrik Lorenz on how the reasoning part of the Platonic soul is corrupted by appetitive desires). The education of the guardians in Republic can be seen in the abstract as a suggestion to shield the guardians from just the sort of corrupting influences that can impair their ability to properly make use of the faculty of reason.

    This Platonic account, unlike the Nietzschean, is compatible with the existence of moral facts. It is also compatible with Brian’s Nietzschean claim #s (2) — that “it is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for [numerous incompatible] moral propositions” and (3) “[those justifications] answer to the psychological needs of philosophers.” It is simply that the apparent dialectical justifications are made possible not by the absence of moral facts but by the inability of philosophers to perceive them in an uncorrupted manner.

    The Platonic account may also be compatible with the nonexistence of moral facts — it does not follow from the corruption of our faculty for moral reasoning that that faculty has any object for its uncorrupted attentions. From that observation, it may seem that the best Plato can offer to Nietzsche is to carve out some space for the possibility of moral facts, and then only if we sacrifice the theoretical virtue of parsimony. But there are some comparative virtues of the Platonic account. Particularly, I think it’s more compatible with our subjective experiences of moral failure and of rationalization. We often experience ourselves as failing to act according to our own moral judgment, or as semi-consciously warping that judgment to serve our own interests. The Platonic account can make sense of this experience as reflecting an incompletely corrupted moral faculty, strong enough to identify our moral failings but not strong enough to motivate us to correct them. Various accounts are available to the Nietzschean committed to the claim that our moral judgments reflect psychological needs (perhaps those who come to moral judgments that reflect poorly on their own behavior are driven by self-hatred). But that seems like a stretch when our moral judgments on ourselves so often have the power to cause us severe discomfort.

    Here’s one likely objection to my alternative Platonic explanation for moral disagreement. Intuitively, corruption by things like ideology and self-interest is most likely to be visible on the level of beliefs about practical moral questions — my opinion about the rightness of racial profiling will depend on my place in the racial hierarchy, and my opinion about abortion will depend on whether I can imagine myself with an unwanted child. But Brian’s Nietzschean argument is about moral disagreement on the level of abstract normative theory, and it’s not obvious that the same corrupting influences would take hold there. It seems a little far-fetched to suggest, for example, that I am less likely to be a utilitarian to the extent that I’m the sort of person whose interests are likely to be sacrificed for the general good.

    Yet it’s easy to believe that our beliefs about theoretical morality are parasitic on our judgments on practical moral questions. While there is an extent to which theoretical stances are underdetermining with respect to their practical implications (there are, for example, both lassiez-faire capitalists and near-socialists among those who subscribe to both deontological and utilitarian views about the structure of morality — compare Rawls, Nozick, Mill, and Friedman), it is plainly easier to hold some practical positions if one also holds certain theoretical positions. For example, it is very easy for a utilitarian to support sexual permissiveness, slightly more difficult for a Kantian (but not terribly so), and near-impossible for a Christian with a divine command theory of morality.

    There is little reason to believe that professional philosophers are immune to this sort of influence, even though they are, as Brian points out, “hyper-rational and reflective,” and do “spend professional careers refining their positions.” For there is little reason to believe that these refinements can overcome the early corruption of philosophers’ capacity for moral reasoning. As Brian also points out, one never sees philosophers changing, e.g., from deontologists to utilitarians, not even gradually. This is so, I would submit, because humans are extremely good at making epistemic commitments and then sheltering them from attack. There is overwhelming psychological evidence that we become wedded to our positions and motivated to defend them, unconsciously attending to supporting evidence and filtering out or rationalizing away contrary evidence. Philosophers are not immune to this structural feature of human cognition.

    One can imagine an undergraduate being strongly attracted to, say, rule utilitarianism because it is compatible with her or his other — corrupted — moral commitments, and simply holding onto that commitment through a professional philosophical career, deploying ever more sophisticated arguments in its defense. How many who teach ethics classes to undergraduates can recall the smartest and most thoughtful students making early commitments to overarching theoretical frameworks like Kantian or utilitarianism, well before being exposed to anything like the full panoply of arguments against them? Thus the divergence.

  • Leiter takes moral skepticism to be “the view that there are no objective moral ‘facts’ or ‘truths’.” His discussion might suggest that he would count moral relativism as an instance of moral skepticism. But some versions of moral relativism suppose that there are objective relational facts about what is right or wrong, namely, what is right or wrong in relation to one or another moral framework. There are objective facts about what relations hold, so there are objective facts about relative right and wrong just as there are objective facts about relative motion. On the other hand, just as there are are no facts about non-relative absolute motion, so in this sort of moral relativism, there are no facts about non-relative absolute right and wrong. According to this sort of moral relativism, there is no single true moral framework, no single true morality, any more than there is a single true spatio-temporal framework.

    I myself do not take such moral relativism to be a kind of moral skepticism, any more than I take the view that there is only relative motion to be a kind of motion skepticism.

    In any event, Leiter observes that moral skepticism or moral relativism is often supported by arguing that it is part of the best explanation of the fact that there seem to be unresolvable disagreements about particular moral issues. He then suggests that the situation in moral theory is even worse. There are not only irresolvable disagreements about particular moral issues, but “no rational consensus has been secure on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality.” He adds, “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.”

    I have to say that it is unclear to me what this means, because it is not clear to me what is meant by “foundational proposition” and “foundational questions.” Is there agreement on any foundational question in mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, or economics? I guess it depends on what count as a foundational proposition or question. It would be nice to have examples. I do notice that physicists appear to have disagreed about the interpretation of quantum physics. More generally, physicists have appeared to disagree about whether an instrumentalist interpretation of physics is better than a so-called realist interpretation. And, from what I know of psychology and economics, psychologists and economists appear to disagree about this sort of basic issue. Furthermore, I wonder what could count as “foundational questions” in biology and chemistry, possibly because of my ignorance of these subjects, possibly because I simply do not understand what “foundational” means in this connection.

    Leiter says 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.” “Nowhere” is too strong. The philosopher Jan Narveson started out as a utilitarian and later switched to become a libertarian. John Stuart Mill started out accepting the strict utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill and came to accept a more libertarian and Romantic version. A number of philosophers have at some point converted to a moral based vegetarianism and some of them have later converted back.

    Consider also the simple trolley case. An out of control trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless the trolley is turned onto a side track. Unfortunately, there is a single person on the side track who will die if the trolley is turned. Is it morally permissible for a bystander to activate the switch that will turn the trolley? Until recently, most analytic philosophers who thought about this case held that it was at least permissible and perhaps obligatory to turn the trolley to save the five ahead at the expense of the one on the side track. But Judith Jarvis Thomson has produced a powerful argument that turning the trolley in this case is wrong [“Turning the Trolley.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 36 (2008):359-374]. At least some philosophers have been sufficiently convinced by her argument that they have changed their mind on this and related cases. Is this to have changed their minds on a foundational question?

    On the other hand, I agree with Leiter and Nietzsche that there is something comic in the way certain philosophers defend what they take to be the single true morality. It resembles the way many people think their language must be understood by all and so when they are not understood they speak louder. Or the way some people think that other dialects of their language are ungrammatical. Or the way many are certain that principles mislearned in grammar school must be correct: no propositions at the end of a sentence, no split infinitives, etc.

  • The opening line of Mackie’s classic Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong advances the bold claim, “There are no objective values,” and it does so immediately under the heading “Moral Skepticism” (1977: 15). This seems to me to have been the event that licensed use of the term ‘moral skepticism’ to capture both ‘subjectivism’(a view about the truth or falsity of value judgments, namely that all such judgments depend for their truth on facts about persons or minds, that underwrites Mackie’s “error theory” of value) and ‘anti-realism’ (a distinct though related metaphysical position that commits its proponents to a negative existential claim about moral facts). Here, however, I’ll reserve use of the term ‘skeptic’ for those who suspend judgment on the metaphysical (or semantic) question whether there are objective moral ‘facts’ (or ‘truths’), thus preserving an important distinction between moral skeptics proper and moral anti-realists. Now, in his classic handbook of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus observes that “it is unbecoming for a Skeptic to fight over phrases” (Outlines of Skepticism [PH] 1: 207), but the use of the term ‘skepticism’ interchangeably with ‘anti-realism’ foments misunderstanding and is at best imprecise; at worst, it has the effect of obscuring completely an important and philosophically interesting avenue of response, one that I believe is central to understanding Nietzsche’s views on morality and how those views serve his larger philosophical project.

    It is true that this use of ‘skepticism’ does not track the one current in the literature. But as Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has recently observed in his book Moral Skepticisms:

    The most central versions of moral skepticism correspond to two varieties of general epistemological skepticism. These views are often conflated and confused, but the distinction between them is crucial. One tradition descends from Plato’s Academy, so it is called Academic skepticism. … [This] kind of skepticism is defined by the claim that nobody knows anything or is justified in believing anything. In contrast, this claim is neither asserted nor believed by skeptics in the other tradition. They also neither deny nor disbelieve it. They have so much doubt that they do not make any claim about whether or not anyone has any knowledge or justified belief. They suspend belief about Academic skepticism. This other variety of skepticism descends from the ancient philosopher Pyrrho, so it is often called Pyrrhonian skepticism. (2006: 10)

    Bearing in mind the distinction between these two varieties of ancient skepticism, we can better understand their contemporary meta-ethical counterparts: the Academic skeptic about morality will say, e.g., that no one has any moral knowledge, and the anti-realist (the one who is confusingly called a ‘skeptic’ today) offers an explanation of this curious fact. If nobody has any moral knowledge, she will say, it is because there is nothing that could ground such knowledge; and that, because there are no (objective) moral facts. The Pyrrhonian skeptic, as the above description suggests, will appear more cautious; he withholds judgment on whether anyone has knowledge about morality or is justified in having moral beliefs and on whether the relevant facts or properties actually exist. This he does in large part because he shares what Leiter rightly identifies as the “general picture Nietzsche has of the discursive pretension of philosophers,” and because he locates “the real significance of the claims of moral philosophers [in] ‘what they tell us about those who make them’…(BGE 187).” And what they tell us, the Pyrrhonist suggests, is that those who make such claims—-claims Nietzsche will describe as ‘ascetic’-—are in very poor health indeed.

    On the reading for which I have argued at length elsewhere (Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition [OUP, forthcoming 2010]), Nietzsche could not maintain so rash a view as that “there are no objective moral ‘facts’ or ‘truths’” without betraying the same discursive pretensions and symptoms of illness that he dedicates his career to diagnosing and exposing in others. Bringing Nietzsche’s question, “Why is it that from Plato onwards every philosophical architect in Europe has built in vain?” (D P: 3) appropriately to the fore, Leiter frames the anti-realist position he attributes to Nietzsche as the best explanation for moral philosophy’s long history of embarrassing failure. Without a doubt, moral philosophy’s dismal résumé is one of Nietzsche’s enduring preoccupations, but he is equally well aware of the gap that remains between any explanation of it—-even the best one currently on offer-—and a conclusive demonstration of the negative metaphysical thesis Nietzsche is said by Leiter to affirm. Simply put, Leiter’s reading asserts too much; Nietzsche does not “conclude from the fact of disagreement among moral philosophers about the fundamental criteria of moral rightness that there is no fact of the matter about these questions.” To draw this conclusion would be to claim to have secured a truth about the fundamental structure of reality-—that reality does not include moral facts. And that claim, no matter how innovative Nietzsche is said to have been in arriving at it, would reduce him to the role of atheist to Plato’s theist, which is surely unsatisfactory. For as he says in Ecce Homo, “I have no sense of atheism…. I have too much curiosity, too many doubts and high spirits to be happy with a ridiculously crude answer” (EH ‘Clever’ 1).

    Consider the Nachlass passage, “Philosophy as décadence” (KSA 13: 14[116]), which Leiter analyzes at the start of his essay. He rightly observes that Greek Sophists merit Nietzsche’s praise for their clever deployment of the fact of disagreement to challenge not just this or that moral judgment, but all attempts to offer reasons for morality. However, it is important to note that according to Nietzsche here the Sophists just touch upon [streifen] “the first insight into morality”; they don’t invent it. Rather, what the Sophists display in making this move is their subtle aptitude for the opportunistic employment of arguments already available and their talent for harnessing the prevalent “Greek instinct” of their time to their own advantage. The real provenance—-both historical and philosophical-—of the argument from disagreement is Skeptical (Pyrrhonian, in fact). Also called the “mode deriving from dispute,” it belongs to the “Five Modes” attributed to Agrippa; according to this mode, Sextus explains, “we find that undecidable dissension about the matter proposed has come about both in ordinary life and among philosophers. Because of this we are not able either to choose or to rule out anything, and we end up with suspension of judgment” (PH 1: 165). Nietzsche is well aware of the origins of this argument, as he makes clear in the other half of this notebook fragment (not quoted by Leiter). Picking up at the end of the passage Leiter reproduces, Nietzsche continues:

    Just where was intellectual integrity in those days?
    the Greek culture of the Sophists had grown out of every Greek instinct: it belongs as necessarily to the culture of the Periclean age as Plato does not: it has its predecessors in Heraclitus, Democritus, in the scientific types of the old philosophy; it finds expression, for example, in the high culture of Thucydides.
    —-and it was ultimately proved right: every advance in epistemological and moralistic knowledge [Erkenntnis] has restoredthe Sophists …
    our way of thinking today is to a large degree Heraclitean, Democritrean and Protagorean … it would suffice to say that it [is] Protagorean, because Protogoras combined within himself the two elements that are Heraclitus and Democritus
    Plato: a great Cagliostro, —- think how Epicurus judged him; how Timon, the friend of Pyrrho, judged him –
    Is perhaps the integrity of Plato beyond doubt? … But we know at least that he wanted to have taught as absolute truth what he did not deem to be even a conditional truth: namely, the special existence and special immorality of ‘souls’ (loc. cit.)

    That Nietzsche has the Pyrrhonian tradition in view here is evident not just from his passing mention of Pyrrho and Timon (Pyrrho’s student). With the exception of Thucydides, virtually all the figures he mentions and sets against Plato in the latter half of this passage, and that he sets them against Plato, reveal that this is the case.

    First, it is helpful to remember that Heraclitus, Democritus, Protagoras, Pyrrho and Timon are among the dozen or so figures whose biographies are included in Book IX of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers [DL], and that in the course of completing his Laertiana, Book IX commanded the lion’s share of Nietzsche’s attentive study. So these are figures he knows well and whom he is already inclined to think of together. Of course, Heraclitus, Democritus and Protagoras are not themselves Pyrrhonists. Yet the fragments containing Heraclitus’ well-known observations about opposites (e.g., “Sea is the most pure and the most polluted water; for fishes it is drinkable and salutary, but for men it is undrinkable and deleterious” [DK 22B61]) drew enough attention for their skeptical overtones even in antiquity that Sextus Empiricus must take special care to distinguish his practice from the views of “the Heracliteans” (PH 1: 210-12, “That the Skeptical persuasion differs from the philosophy of Heraclitus”; cf. DL 9: 73). The same is true of both Protagoras and Democritus, to whom Sextus devotes independent discussions at the end of the first part of the Outlines, distinguishing his position from each of theirs in an effort to forestall confusion (PH 1: 216-19, 1: 213-14; on Democritus, cf. DL 9: 72). In the case of Democritus, the relativism of secondary qualities of objects that is implied by his dictum “by convention sweet, by convention bitter, in reality atoms and void,” was the potential source of confusion (in spite of his dogmatic physical theories, which Sextus points out); in the case of Protagoras, one need only examine his defense of the so-called “man-measure” doctrine against Socrates in the Theaetetus to understand how he might (mistakenly) be taken to be in league with the Skeptics, for the way in which his doctrine would, like theirs, undermine the metaphysical realism aggressively promoted by Plato.

    There is a sense in which the Sophists would, at any rate, be uneasy partners for Nietzsche if he were out to argue for moral anti-realism, as Leiter would have it. For although Nietzsche says that the Sophists’ exploitation of the fact of moral disagreement intimates that “every morality can be justified dialectically,” and that “they postulate as the first truth that ‘a morality in itself’, a ‘good in itself’ does not exist,” Nietzsche surely realizes (as we must realize) that their reasons for doing so have nothing to do with vindicating an anti-realist position—-or any other metaphysical position, for that matter. They’re Sophists; beyond winning the argument, they don’t have an agenda. They’re unscrupulous and ruthless mercenaries, shameless opportunists ready to don any cloak and assume any position for the sake of winning the argument—-which they do for sport, or for hire. This is clearly part of what Nietzsche likes about them, but it will not make them ready allies in the project of vindicating any truths or judgments, objective or otherwise; indeed, they could not be less interested in objective truths.

    Strictly speaking, neither do the Skeptics have an agenda, at least not in the sense of a discursive and systematic account they wish to promote. What they do have on their side however, as Nietzsche highlights in this unpublished fragment, is “intellectual integrity.” This virtue (if we can call it that), which I take to be related closely to the “honesty” Nietzsche prizes and the “intellectual conscience” (or “well-constitutedness”) he denies especially to Christians (A 52), is one Nietzsche associates constantly with skepticism, the entertaining of doubts, and the avoidance of conviction (see, e.g., GS 110, UM 3: 2). Skeptics, Nietzsche says, are “the decent type in the history of philosophy [while] the rest are ignorant of the first requirements of intellectual integrity” (A 12); they are “the only honorable type among the equivocal, quinquivocal tribe of philosophers!” (EH ‘Clever’ 3). On the other hand, the lack of “integrity” is a recurring motif in his critique of Plato, who is surely among those implicated in Nietzsche’s claim that he mistrusts all systematizers and avoids them, stating famously (or by now, perhaps, infamously) that, “the will to a system is a lack of integrity” (TI ‘Maxims’ 26). At any rate, in this notebook passage, Nietzsche makes abundantly clear that Plato, “a great Cagliostro,” stands utterly in opposition to the forces of intellectual integrity, under which heading he ranges the Skeptics and their close cousins.

    Thus, the “Greek instincts” that Nietzsche sets opposite Plato are Skeptical instincts, and their opposition to him cannot consist simply in identifying Plato’s position and arguing for its converse. Plato is the quintessential dogmatist, the one who “stands truth on her head” by “denying perspective, the basic condition of all life” (BGE P). Countering Platonic realism with anti-realism can produce nothing more than a mirror image, and Nietzsche must be after more than this, because such a criticism would overlook what Nietzsche’s real criticism of Plato is in the first place: that his will to truth, his commitment to a model of ‘explanation’ and conception of ‘knowledge’ that requires transcendental grounds, is a model of knowledge moralized—-the ascetic ideal in its most virulent and pernicious form. It is Plato’s commitment to objectivity-—the disinterested spectator, the blind eye, the view from nowhere—-that is fundamentally ascetic. This is why “the worst, most durable, and most dangerous of all errors so far was a dogmatist’s error—-namely, Plato’s invention of the pure spirit and the good as such” (BGE P).

    It is a mistake to think that Nietzsche’s critique can go further than this and remain internally consistent. This is because, on Leiter’s reading, it must be an objective (metaphysical) fact that there are no objective moral facts. That is the thesis he takes to be supported by the argument from disagreement, since that thesis is supposed to be the best explanation of the phenomena. Leiter’s conclusion is that Nietzsche is a skeptic (or rather, an anti-realist) about the objectivity of morality. But if I am right, what Nietzsche is a skeptic about, in the genuine sense of the word ‘skeptic’, is objectivity simpliciter. So Nietzsche cannot affirm the objective (metaphysical) thesis that there are no objective moral properties or facts. His only option, in order to oppose Plato without becoming just Plato’s mirror-image (the anti-Plato, the one who says, “whatever Plato thinks, we think the opposite!”) is not to adopt any of the metaphysical positions in this debate, but to eschew the debate altogether. That is what he does in the interest of intellectual “cleanliness.”

  • Michael Cholbi

    I’d like to offer two small, but I hope significant, points. Each of them is meant to suggest that Leiter’s argument supports a weaker conclusion than anti-realism about objective moral facts.

    1. We should affirm conclusions only as robust and wide-ranging as our evidence merits. And it seems to me that irrespective of the criticisms of Leiter’s argument offered by previous commenters, his argument from philosophical disagreement does not support the emphatically anti-realist claim that there are no objective moral truths. Rather, it supports the skeptical conclusion that either (a) we do not know if there are objective moral truths, or (b) if there are, we do not know which moral truths are objective. At the very least, (a) and (b) are compatible with the phenomena about disagreement Leiter cites. Now Leiter may complain that this treats his argument as deductive when he clearly intends it to be abductive, i.e., an inference to the best explanation. However, I would borrow a page from Paul Katsafanas and propose that we do not readily infer that the best explanation of disagreement in domains besides morality is that there are no objective facts to be disagreed about. Perhaps the best explanation of theological disagreement is not that there are no objective theological facts but that we lack the cognitive ability to discern such facts. Indeed, what Leiter calls our “psychological needs” may explain this inability. Hence, a reasonable reaction to theological disagreement is agnosticism or skepticism. So why doesn’t philosophical disagreement about morality support skepticism rather than anti-realism?

    Second, following Ralph Wedgwood, Leiter’s argument may instead support an ‘anti-theoretical’ stance akin to the late Bernard Williams’. If, as Wedgwood notes, philosophers disagree more about the proper normative accounts of our specific first-order moral judgments than about those first-order judgments, then maybe it’s only philosophical theorizing about morality that leads us to second guess our first-order moral judgments in the first place. Philosophical inquiry into morality may destroy moral knowledge by engendering disagreement. If this is correct, then we have reason to prefer a more chastened model of what philosophers do when they think about morality. In other words, Leiter’s argument may be bad news for moral philosophy, but not bad news for moral objectivity. (I imagine both Julian Young and Joshua Knobe would find this second suggestion congenial.)

  • In his provocative paper, “Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement: Developing an Argument from Nietzsche,” Brian Leiter argues for the distinctively anti-realist thesis that “there are no objective moral truths.” Arguments from moral disagreement for some kind of anti-realism have been around for a long time. What is distinctive about Leiter’s argument, which draws on ideas in Neitzsche’s work, is its emphasis on disagreement amongst professional philosophers. The idea seems to be that if even the experts show no signs of converging in their judgments in spite of millennia of theorizing under fairly ideal circumstances, then the prospects for any sort of objective moral truth seem dim indeed. It is bad enough that ordinary people show so little convergence, but it is even more embarrassing for the defender of objective moral truth that even the experts seem unable to agree on “any substantive, foundational proposition about morality.”

    The form of Leiter’s argument is clear enough. It is an argument to the best explanation with roughly the following logical form:

    (1) There has been no convergence on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality under what appear (and purport) to be epistemically ideal conditions of sustained philosophical inquiry and reflective contemplation across millennia.

    (2) The best explanation for such a failure in convergence (as highlighted in premise (1)) is that there are no objective moral truths.

    (3) Therefore, There are no objective moral truths. [from (1) and (2) as an argument to the best explanation]

    So Leiter’s main thesis is that “there are no objective moral truths,” and the basic idea seems to be that if there were any such truths then we would have converged on some of them by now, given how ideal the circumstances for inquiry have been.

    What, though, does the thesis that there are no objective moral truths mean in this context? The idea that there are no moral truths, full stop, is perhaps straightforward enough – at least, it is not especially obscure for a philosophical thesis. Presumably the point, suitably qualified, is that no substantive moral claim is true. The caveat ‘substantive’ is necessary because the thesis is not meant to entail that ‘abortion is either wrong or it is not wrong’ is not true. Substantive moral truths are at the very least not logical tautologies.

    Leiter’s thesis does not go this far, though. He does not claim that there are no (substantive) moral truths, full-stop. Instead, he claims that there are no objective moral truths. Unfortunately, he never says (in this paper, anyway) just what is meant here by ‘objective’. A great deal hangs on how this notion is cashed out, though, and it can reasonably be understood in more ways than one. However, the context suggests that by ‘objective’ Leiter has in mind moral truths which are not “indexed” in some way to some particular contingent and subjective perspective. An obvious contrast would be with moral truths which are relative to some contingent historical moral code, or the ideals of an individual subject. For example, relative to the perspective of a consequentialist, it is perhaps true that most people in the industrialized West should give more to charity than they actually do. This sort of moral truth, though, can be understood as a purely sociological comment, and hence one which can be ignored without any sort of irrationality. In the terms of the trade, moral truth in this sense need not be understood as “normative” – that is, as providing “real” reasons for action which one must heed on pain of irrationality. Objective moral truth, by contrast, presumably is not indexed in this way and is robustly normative – in that someone who acknowledges that he morally ought to do something but is utterly unmotivated to do it, is thereby irrational. Objective moral truth is then both not indexed to any contingent perspective and is robustly normative.

    If this interpretation of what Leiter means by ‘objective moral truth’ is right, then he is defending a version of what is sometimes called the “error theory,” a view most famously defended by J.L. Mackie (Mackie 1977). Mackie also argued against objective moral truth in this sense. Mackie also explicitly maintains that ordinary moral discourse nonetheless purports to provide objective moral truth. Although Leiter does not explicitly endorse this interpretation of ordinary practice, I suspect that he would find it congenial. Moreover, Mackie himself argues for the error theory in part on the strength of the apparent fact of ubiquitous and deep moral disagreement. Leiter differs from Mackie primarily in emphasizing disagreement amongst professional philosophers as opposed to ordinary people.

    However, the error theory does not represent the only way of taking the ubiquity of deep moral disagreement seriously, and drawing a broadly anti-realist conclusion. Historically, an important alternative is found in the so-called “expressivist” tradition. In its earliest forms, the expressivist also maintained that there are no objective moral truths (see, e.g., Ayer 1952). Unlike Mackie, though, the expressivist did not maintain that moral claims purported to provide such truths. On their view, moral claims instead functioned to express the speaker’s pro and con attitudes. They are on this theory more like interjections or exhortations than statements of fact (whether objective or subjective), and hence are simply not properly assessed as true or false any more than ‘boo for abortion’ or ‘Don’t have abortions!’ .

    However, later expressivists have tried to accommodate more of our ordinary practice of moral judgment than Ayer did. Most notably, Simon Blackburn has defended a view he calls “quasi-realism.” The main idea behind quasi-realism is to “earn the right” to the realist sounding things that ordinary people say, but within a broadly expressivist framework. A full discussion of the subtleties of quasi-realism would here take us too far afield, but the main point is that if the project is successful then it will allow us, at the end of the day, to speak of objective moral truth in the only sense that can be made of that notion. The main move here is to defend a so-called “deflationist” or “minimalist” account of truth and truth talk, according to which talk of truth is a mere grammatical device. On this view, there is no substantial property of truth, and indeed there is no deep difference between ‘p’ and ‘it is true that p’. The idea is then to show how the expressivist can make sense of talk of moral truth given deflationism. The quasi-realist then gives an account of the objectivity of moral truth according to which claims of objectivity are themselves first-order claims – and hence themselves expressions of attitude of a certain kind. If the project succeeds then at the end of the day, we can perfectly well talk of objective moral truth. Indeed, Blackburn suggests we can go further than this:

    Minimalism seems to let us end up saying, for instance, that ‘kindness is good’ represents the facts…Since we already have a sketch of a minimalist theory of ethical cognition, saying that we talk of knowledge that p when we are convinced that no improvement has a chance of reversing our commitment to p, we might even say that we know moral propositions to be true. Or really true, or really factually true, or really in accord with the eternal harmonies and verities that govern the universe, if we like that kind of talk. We can add flowers without end: ‘it is good to be kind to children’ conforms to the eternal normative structure of the world. For this means no more than it is good to be kind to children. (Blackburn 1998: 79)

    The crucial point here is that quasi-realism promises not only to deliver legitimate talk of moral truth, it does so while at the same time providing a plausible explanation of the ubiquity of deep moral disagreement. For if ultimately, our moral judgments are understood as expressions of pro- and con- attitudes then we can explain why these attitudes diverge in unproblematic naturalistic terms which cite such humdrum features as how people are raised, their natural temperament, distortions of partiality, and even professional self-interest and the sorts of considerations cited by Leiter. Indeed, the ability to explain the ubiquity and depth of fundamental moral disagreement is usually seen as one of the strong points of expressivism. So it seems that there is a gap in Leiter’s argument as presented here. Premise (2) of the argument, as I have reconstructed it, needs more defence. For on the face of it, the quasi-realist provides a plausible explanation of the sorts of disagreements that Leiter emphasizes, but does so in a way which does not force us to give up objective moral truth.

    Another interesting gap opens up in the argument when we consider yet another tradition in contemporary moral philosophy – the so-called “particularist” tradition, championed most extensively by Jonathan Dancy (see Dancy 2004). While I am myself no defender of particularism (indeed, I have argued against it at length in print; see McKeever and Ridge 2006), it is a view which cannot reasonably be dismissed out of hand. Particularism can be formulated in many ways, but the basic idea is that while there are objective moral truths, these are far too context-sensitive and complex ever to be captured in any finite and humanly manageable set of principles. We simply discern the moral truth case by case – or, at least, the virtuous person does. On this view, the attempts by moral philosophers to capture all of morality in some simple principle like the principle of utility or the categorical imperative is itself deeply misguided.

    Interestingly, particularism poses a problem for Leiter’s argument from disagreement because of Leiter’s emphasis on the disagreement of theorists. For the particularist will offer his own diagnosis of why there has been no disagreement on any substantial and foundational moral principle amongst those professional philosophers who set out to find them – there aren’t any to be found! Crucially, though, the particularist does not deny that there are objective moral truths. The point is that these truths, while perfectly objective, are also highly context-dependent and stubbornly resist all attempts to be captured in any finite set of principles. Once again, we have a challenge to premise (2) of Leiter’s argument as I have reconstructed it. For here we again have another explanation of the specific sort of disagreement Leiter cites, but which does not exclude objective moral truth as a live option. Indeed, the particularist can even echo some of Leiter’s rhetoric, suggesting that it is an occupational hazard of professional philosophers to theorize and articulate principles. They therefore will be “professionally invested in normative moral theory,” even though the objectivity of moral truth is not dependent on the tenability of such theorizing. So to press his argument more fully, Leiter needs to say something about both (a) quasi-realist forms of expressivism and (b) particularism. For both of these views offer an alternative explanation of the data, thereby posing a challenge to premise (2) of his argument.

    Finally, what might a more traditional moral realist make of Leiter’s argument? Traditional moral realists posit objective moral truth, but without the fancy semantic machinery of quasi-realism or the anti-theoretical commitments of particularism. I am myself not sympathetic with traditional forms of moral realism, and instead defend my own form of quasi-realist expressivism which I call “Ecumenical Expressivism.” (see, e.g., Ridge 2006a, 2006b, and 2009) Moreover, I think that suitably formulated arguments from disagreement do in fact undermine traditional forms of moral realism. Nonetheless, I shall here play devil’s advocate, with the hope that by pressing Leiter on his interesting argument I might help him to improve it. One immediate point is that Leiter sometimes seems to exaggerate the data itself. For example, his claim that we have had what appear to be epistemically ideal conditions for sustained philosophical inquiry for “millennia” (5) is surely hyperbole. For up until the twentieth century, avowing a purely secular moral theory was hazardous to your health. So for much of the millennia Leiter has in mind the influence of religious orthodoxy no doubt exerted a distorting influence on moral theorizing. Moreover, to some extent, this influence no doubt lingers in various subtle and not so subtle ways. Derek Parfit put the point nicely in the concluding paragraph of Reasons and Persons:

    Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes. (Parfit 1984: 454)

    Moreover, in his most recent work, Parfit has argued that consequentialists and Kantians and contractualists are all, without knowing it, converging on the same view – in that the best version of each tradition culminates in roughly the same fundamental view. As Parfit puts it, each tradition is “climbing the same mountain,” but from a different side (Parfit forthcoming) This thesis is of course controversial, but it at least suggests that Leiter’s claim that there is “no sign – I can think of none – that we are heading towards any epistemic rapprochement between these competing moral traditions” needs substantial qualification, as does his claim that the partisans of each tradition no longer talk to those outside their own tradition, in my view.

    Even granting him the data, though, there is another problem with Leiter’s argument quite apart from the points raised above about quasi-realism and particularism. Leiter considers the standard “companions in guilt” reply to his argument, according to which his argument would prove too much, generalizing to pretty much all of philosophy. In reply, Leiter seems to bite the bullet, citing Nietzsche with approval in suggesting that these other philosophical disputes are themselves driven by the moral agendas of the philosophers who put them forward.

    I must admit that I find this empirical hypothesis extremely strained in some cases, though in others it seems plausible enough, prima facie. Perhaps theories of free will and the mind are driven by moral agendas, at least in some cases. However, are we really to believe that such abstract philosophical debates as those about four-dimensionalism in the philosophy of time (one of Leiter’s own examples) or about nominalism in metaphysics are driven primarily by the moral agendas of the partisans to those debates. This beggars belief, frankly, but without this hypothesis it is hard to see how to assess Leiter’s reply. For all the “companions in guilt” reply needs in order to pose a problem for Leiter’s argument is one clear case in which the argument overgeneralizes. The fact that Leiter can deal with some of the cases therefore is not entirely to the point.

    Even in those cases in which Leiter’s hypothesis has some plausibility, it seems a bit much to jump from that hypothesis – that the debate is driven by the moral agendas of the partisans – to the conclusion that there is no fact of the matter as to who is right in the debate in question. Suppose that the debate over mind/body dualism is driven by the moral agendas of the partisans. Should we infer from this that there is no fact of the matter as to whether mind/body dualism is true? Again, this seems highly implausible.

    Finally, Leiter considers the suggestion that his argument is self-refuting on the grounds that there is disagreement over whether the fact of disagreement supports the inference to ‘no fact of the matter’. In which case, it might seem that his own form of argument would imply that there is also no fact of the matter as to whether there is no fact of the matter – or at least that there is no fact of the matter as to whether we should infer that there is no such. In reply, Leiter suggests that a better explanation of this meta-disagreement is that professional philosophers are heavily invested in normative theory as a serious discipline, and that this explains their commitment to realism. Perhaps in some cases, this is credible, but as a sweeping generalization it needs a lot more argument. For a start, many of those who defend moral realism do not do much in the way of “first-order” normative ethics anyway – they just “do meta-ethics.” In which case, their investment is easily exaggerated. Second, endorsing anti-realism need not imply the abandonment of serious first-order inquiry. Even hard-core error theorists like Mackie typically go on to offer a “reforming” account of our moral concepts which they argue for – not to mention the possibility of quasi-realism again. Finally, of course, many of those who rabidly defend moral realism are actually opposed to normative theorizing – here, again I have in mind moral particularists such as Jonathan Dancy.

    Works Cited

    Ayer, A.J. (1952) Language, Truth, and Logic (New York: Dover Publications)

    Blackburn, S. (1998) Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

    Dancy, J. (2004) Ethics Without Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

    Mackie, J.L. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin Books.
    McKeever, S. and Ridge, M. (2006) Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative
    Ideal (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

    Parfit, D. 1984. Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
    _____. Forthcoming. On What Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

    Ridge, M. 2006a. “Ecumenical Expressivism: Finessing Frege,” Ethics, 116: 302-
    336.
    _____. 2006 b.”Ecumenical Expressivism: The Best of Both Worlds?” in Shafer-
    Landau 2006, pp. 302-336.

    _____. 2009. “The Truth in Ecumenical Expressivism,” in Sobel and Wall 2009:
    219-242.

    Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2006. Oxford Studies in Metaethics, volume two, Oxford
    University Press, Oxford.

    Sobel, D. and Wall, D. 2009. Reasons for Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University
    Press.

  • Jussi Suikkanen

    I wonder if Professor Leiter holds this view about his own moral judgments too. For years, I’ve been reading from his blog that it is wrong to teach intelligent design at schools (a claim which I agree with). Yet, I know that not only some lay people, but also some theologicians, scientists, and even philosophers disagree with this claim. If Leiter’s own argument above works, then this shows that there is no objective fact or a truth that teaching intelligent design in schools is wrong (neither is there a fact that it is right).

    So, I wonder if Leiter thinks that it is false that it is wrong to teach intelligent design at schools. If he does, I wonder how he can continue making normative claims like this on his blog. Maybe these claims and beliefs just “answer to [his] psychological needs”. But, then I don’t see why we should take them seriously.

  • Being one of the moral realists that are at the bulls-eye of Leiter’s argument, it should be obvious that our metaethical disagreement over moral disagreement is fairly deep and perhaps unresolvable. Perhaps we could begin, however, with a point of agreement, lest our ever-escalating higher order disagreements seem to overwhelm any prospect of settling anything. I think, or at least I hope, that even skeptics like Leiter and realists like myself can agree on the fact that we both can’t be right and that one of us is making a mistake: in contrast to the way some relativists see things, both sides of the debate agree that this is not a “faultless dispute”. It is not much to agree on but it is something. If our disagreement is unresolvable, this is not due to the non-existence of a fact of the matter about who between us is right (assuming we are not both wrong), but is due rather to the stubbornness of whoever is wrong and fails to see the errors of their ways. (It seems churlish to complain about people’s stubbornness if they are insisting on the truth.) Hopefully, we can at least agree that unless we’re both wrong, one side of this debate is in the wrong and that the other side has fixed onto the truth of the matter.

    But what exactly is the matter? There seems to be a degree to which we may have been talking past each other. Leiter claims that skepticism gets off the ground by noting that “no rational consensus has been secured on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality.” He then goes onto develop this idea by discussing the fact that there is intractable disagreement between moral philosophers about which normative theory is the true one and then explains the stubbornness of this disagreement by saying that there are no facts about morality there for the moral philosophers to agree on.

    This however seems to miss the point for the moral realist. Moral realists typically do not take the principles of normative theories as the “foundational propositions” of morality. Rather, the moral facts that realists see as the explananda are the data taken from our engaged moral experiences. We love our family and friends. We witness injustice and experience righteous indignation. We act courageously in the face of danger. We see photographs of WWII concentration camps and feel a visceral moral revulsion. The moral aspects of reality that we experience in life provide the foundations of moral thinking for a realist and moral theories are the philosopher’s explanation of the foundations. Moral theories are supposed to explain the moral facts just like scientific theories are supposed to explain the physical facts. And there is plenty of consensus on the basic moral facts to which the moral realist may appeal. For example, I take a list of moral facts that Sharon Street has given in her important argument against moral realism, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” (Philosophical Studies 127, 1 (January 2006): 109-166). Though Street is a constructivist about moral facts, she agrees with realists about what they are:

    (1) The fact that something would promote one’s survival is
    a reason in favor of it.
    (2) The fact that something would promote the interests of
    a family member is a reason to do it.
    (3) We have greater obligations to help our own children
    than we do to help complete strangers.
    (4) The fact that someone has treated one well is a reason
    to treat that person well in return.
    (5) The fact that someone is altruistic is a reason to admire,
    praise, and reward him or her.
    (6) The fact that someone has done one deliberate harm is a
    reason to shun that person or seek his or her punishment (p.115).

    That moral philosophers cannot agree on a justification for how they base their judgments and actions on these facts is an embarrassment to moral philosophy, but not to morality itself.

    (Perhaps presumptuously, my diagnosis is that Leiter’s skepticism is involved in some sort of levels confusion. If so, then he is good company with other metaethical skeptics, such as Dworkin, Blackburn, and Rorty, insofar as all deny the possibility of philosophy gaining any Archimedean leverage on morality. (Here I use “skepticism” as Leiter does, meaning that there are no “facts” or “truths” about whatever it is we are being skeptical about.) I discuss this further in, “Archimedeanianism and Why Metaethics Matters”, in Oxford Studies in Metaethics vol. 4, R. Shafer-Landau (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2009.)

    My own sense of what we should say about the diversity of seemingly irreconcilable normative theories is to adopt a pluralist attitude toward them. (I am not alone here, at least Joel Kupperman and David Schimdtz think so too.) We are unlikely to find either deontologists to be “defeating” the consequentialists or vice versa. I think we have things to learn about how to live from both Kant and Mill. The wise thing to say, one might think, is that we should be happy to learn our lessons from wherever they come. Sometimes it is best to think like deontologists and stand on principle regardless of the consequences, and sometimes it is best to think like consequentialists and choose the lesser of two evils, even though we would normally refrain from both on principle. It has also been noted many times that across a very wide swath of the moral territory, deontologists and consequentialists agree on what to do in particular cases. True, they may disagree on why what ought to be done ought to be done, but they agree on the matter of first importance, the practical matter of what ought to be done. Even this consensus is grist for the realist’s mill. Nevertheless, let the stalemate among normative theories be whatever it is, I do not see any reason to countenance an inference from it to the non-existence of moral facts.

    I do have sympathy with one argument that Leiter addresses which is most strongly developed by Russ Shafer-Landau. This is that the disagreements in moral philosophy are no worse than they are in other areas of philosophy where the inference to skepticism seems far less plausible. Either there is free will or there is not, and it is a factual, empirical matter which, and philosophers do not agree and are unlikely to do so in the future. Maybe the philosophers who write on free will take the positions they do because of their own personal moral positions, as Leiter suggests, but even if this is true, the intransigence of the debate combined with the personal reasons for the philosophers arguing as they do, does not license either the inference that there is no free will nor that there are no facts about whether or not we have free will.

    And note that the problem becomes even more acute when we turn to debates in the philosophy of science. For most skeptics about morality, Leiter included, science is supposed to be different than morality in that the former is factual while the latter is non-factual. Unfortunately, the debate between scientific realists and empiricists about science (like Bas van Fraassen) seems just as intractable as the debates over normative theory in morality. It is far from clear that we can hold science as sacrosanct from skeptical worries while being willing to indict the subject matter of every other area of philosophy. But if philosophy of science is in the same boat with moral philosophy, and metaphysics, epistemology and all the rest, then at least the moral realist can breath easily at the thought that they are going down with everyone else and the problem has nothing to do with morality per se.

    One might protest that even if the philosophy of science is problematic this doesn’t imply that science itself has any worries. (No matter for now that the moral realist should be just as capable of making this claim about morality.) Science is thought to be full of agreement and indeed it is in broad agreement about the basic facts which are the data that science takes itself to explain. (This data would be analogous to the list of moral facts (1)-(6) above which are the explanandum of those who study morality.) So too is there much agreement in scientific theory. But note that there is little agreement on the fundamental issues of science, like how to understand what a law of nature or a force is, or, on the more applied end, the interpretation of quantum physics or even questions regarding the relations of physics, biology, and psychology to each other. At the most applied end, debates in medicine rage as intractably as they do in morality. There is no unified theory of science, there is not even a unified theory of physics. Do we take the stubborn debates among quantum physicists to indicate that there are no facts whatsoever about what is going on at the quantum level? Either string theory is true or it isn’t, but demonstrating which it is will be no mean feat. Scientists argue for their positions as vehemently as those engaged in intractable moral disagreement, where both agree that (at least) one party is wrong but neither can show that it is the other side. We do not typically make any inferences to skepticism in these scientific cases and if we do then, once again, the moral realist goes down with good company.

    And so, surprise, surprise, I am not sufficiently moved by Leiter’s arguments to revise my position. And the smart money says that he will be no more moved by my arguments. Shall we throw up our hands and give up the game? No, I say. First, we have agreed up front that we both can’t be right, so there is always hope that the stalemate will be broken. While debates have been going on in moral philosophy and metaethics for a long, long time, I don’t recall reading any discussions about moral disagreement so precise and technical from the distant past. So maybe we are making slow but real progress. There does seem to be some fairly new agreement about fundamental issues in morality, like the reprehensibility of slavery and torture; the wrongness of racism and sexism have only recently been broadly acknowledged. Even if the philosophers can’t agree on why these things are wrong, our learning of their wrongness amounts to learning some new, truly foundational lessons in morality: we might think of them as “moral paradigm shifts”. Perhaps something similar will happen one day in metaethics. Let us continue to argue and to be one another’s “noble opposition”, and let the chips fall where they may, however long it may take.

    A final rhetorical riposte, given Leiter’s talk about “bourgeois academics” who adopt the theories that they do because of their own personal psychological needs. My point is not necessarily to refute it, but to note that this is just the sort of indictment that cuts against those who make it. Berkeley spurned metaphysics while simultaneously denying the existence of substance and Hume claimed to be aligned against the metaphysicians while denying the existence of a necessary connection between cause and effect. Bravo for their philosophy, but their rhetoric deserves a raspberry: both Berkeley and Hume were consummate metaphysicians regardless of the insults they hurl at metaphysics. Perhaps they are self-disrespecting metaphysicians, but they are metaphysicians nonetheless. So too should we say the same for Nietzsche and the insults he hurls at moral philosophers, for he surely is a moral philosopher whether he would admit it or not. What else doth Zarathrustra spake if not prescriptions about how one ought to live? And while I am far from a scholar of Nietzsche, of all the moral philosophers, he does seem to me to be just the sort who would adopt the theory he does because it suits his personal psychological temperament. If Nietzsche wants to claim that he isn’t doing moral philosophy, then let him claim it. But if and when he does, the superman/emperor wears no clothes.

  • As the title suggests, Brian Leiter is developing an argument for moral scepticism he finds in Nietzsche. Its conclusion is that ‘moral realism’ – the idea that there are ‘objective moral “facts” or “truths”’ – is false. The argument begins with a claim regarding widespread disagreement among moral philosophies rather than in ordinary moral thought. The history of moral philosophy reveals deep disagreements regarding fundamentals, which are a) difficult to reconcile (which I shall assume owes itself to inconsistency generated the content and implications of the different core assumptions) and b) tenacious inasmuch as these fundamental commitments maintain their popularity in philosophy through continued attempts to articulate and justify those positions. The best explanation, so the argument goes, of the disagreement and tenacity regarding the fundamentals in moral philosophy is that a) there are no moral facts which would otherwise command convergence and b) positions are held and defended because they somehow appeal to some non-rational psychological disposition of its defenders (their ‘psychological needs’). The activity of the moral philosopher then is not a disinterested attempt to arrive at moral truth but a post-hoc rationalization of a general evaluative stance, akin to the ascetic priest in Nietzsche’s works who offers an evaluative interpretation of the world as a way of making sense of his own disposition to withdraw from it. The following comments are not so much an assessment of the argument but how it must further be developed before we can assess it.

    First, there is a question regarding the target, namely ‘moral realism’. One characterization offered is that there are ‘objective’ moral truths or facts, but there are many senses of objectivity. Mackie gestures towards a notion of objectivity by appeal to there being strange properties that are (somehow ‘there anyway’) completely independent of human thought or activity, a conception of objectivity furthermore which depends on the taking a cognitive internalist view of moral judgment. Mackie claims that his moral scepticism is not a conceptual issue but Mackie is not innocent of assumptions regarding the conceptual or meta-ethical issue. But that is not the objectivity of morals to which, say, Railton is committed, or a Kantian one. Elsewhere, Leiter writes in a way that suggests that moral realism requires requires postulating moral facts that explain convergence but constructivists might argue that this is a mistaken conception of objectivity, and, crudely, moral truths emerge from a convergence that is commanded by a gradual appreciation of reasons.

    I don’t myself have much sympathy with the last view: the point is rather is that a more precise characterization of the target needs to be given. However, the fact that there are different conceptions of objectivity in ethics might be grist to Leiter’s mill, evidence again of further disagreement. But this brings up a second issue for comment. There may be fundamental differences between moral philosophies but these do not easily translate into differences into moral opinions or indeed reflect an disagreement on that score. So, for example, there are fundamental and perhaps intractable differences between (say) constructivists, cognitivist, or non-cognitivist over the correct interpretation of ‘murder is wrong’, but none over whether murder is wrong. There is a good deal of agreement that between theorists of personal identity that I am the same person as I was last week, but little agreement among the theorists who try to articulate in just what that fact consists. So we might instead think that philosophical disagreement is down to a distortion of moral phenomena that owes itself to the bias of philosophers. A Kantian might emphasize duty and so try to theorize ordinary morality in a way a way that distorts ordinary morality, and in turn we might explain that tendency by some strange non-rational bias on her part (I write of course as a humean with Nietzschean sympathies (!)) but of course that gets us at most an explanation of her distortion of morality which does not translate easily into the denial of moral fact. Nietzsche of course has a different sent of considerations that might help here, namely those which problematize the very idea of ‘moral phenomena’ independent of interpretation, an idea with which I am increasingly in sympathy. But without it, or some other consideration, the inference from philosophical disagreement to no moral facts is not as straightforward as it may seem.

    Third, its one thing to say that the best explanation of the theorizing practices of philosophers is that it answers some psychological need and quite another to spell that out. My point is not that it could not be the best explanation, but only that it is far too early to say. I strongly suspect that Leiter will agree with this, and that further empirical work needs to be done, but some more philosophical work needs to be done too. Psychological ‘need’ in what sense? And ‘answer that need’ in what sense? Do I prefer Hume because his rather avuncular and witty style because, in turn, I have some independently-specifiable psychological disposition to find such things appealing? In what sense is this a ‘need’? Alternatively, of course, it might be that certain kinds of theoretical views and evaluative priorities that I have (and in order not to beg any questions they cannot assumed to be psychological needs) might explain why a favour the humean position over others. So Kantianism is a non-starter since it simply won’t work without a mistaken conception of agency and so it is my theoretical commitments that won’t bring me into their camp (their attempts to work without expensive accounts of freedom I find unpersuasive). As to evaluative commitments, Hume might appeal to me, furthermore, because I value warmth and wit over austerity and duty. It is a further question whether a difference in evaluative priorities leads to an inference to moral scepticism, but appealing to evaluative properties is a different kind of explanation than one that appeals to psychological need. Leiter and I agree that this won’t be settled a priori; and I’m sure we agree more work needs to be done.

  • I am unconvinced by two of the premises:

    1. If there is a true moral theory, then we would have probably found it by now.

    There are lots of theories that we have no reason to think we “should have found” by now despite being philosophically interested for a long time. For example, philosophy of the mind.

    2. We have no reason to accept any moral theories, so it is plausible that all of them are false.

    Sometimes we have no way to know what theory is true, but that doesn’t imply that no theory is true. Democritus suggested that the world is made of atoms rather than fire or water. We had no reason to accept any of these theories, but Democritus had the most accurate theory.

    Additionally, Leiter’s argument would be defeated if we know (or can highly justify) a single moral fact based on reality. Any strong evidence for moral realism would undermine the argument.

  • I wrote a short essay a while back concerning this subject and I emailed Brian Leiter about it. He recommended that I post it here. I posted a link to the essay, but my message was edited and the essay was removed. I hope it is OK to copy/paste what the essay said:

    In “Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement in Nietzsche,” Brian Leiter argues that Nietzsche gives us a good reason to reject moral realism: Philosophers have been lead to inevitable disagreement about the foundations of ethics and we have no reason to think any of them are right. They are probably all wrong because “right” and “wrong” probably don’t exist.

    Leiter’s essay is considered to be a rough draft, so he asks that I do not cite or quote his material without permission, so I will just present the argument on my own as I personally understand it.

    I will not question Leiter’s belief that this argument is based on Nietzsche’s beliefs. Instead, I want to consider whether or not the argument he presents is plausible.
    The Nietzschean Argument From Relativity

    John Mackie’s “argument from relativity” suggested that the best explanation for persistent moral disagreement was that moral realism is false. There are no moral facts. Nietzsche’s argument is similar to Mackie’s, but he concentrates on the persistent moral disagreement involving professional philosophers and their failure to provide a plausible foundation for moral realism.

    Exactly what kind of philosophical disagreements are relevant? I suggest the following:

    1. Moral realists come in many varieties. There are naturalists, non-naturalists, coherence theorists, intuitionists, divine command theorists, and so on.

    2. Identifying “right” and “wrong” requires us to adopt a theory, but there are multiple theories of this kind, such as Aristotelianism, utilitarianism, Kantianism, and so on.

    Each moral theory seems to be coherent and justified, and helps us satisfy our desire to live in a moral universe, but the theories are incompatible. They can’t all be right. Either one theory is right or all of them are wrong. Additionally, we have insufficient evidence to say which theory is probably true, so it seems likely that we have no reason to believe any of them. It seems more likely that these theories are highly speculative rather than based on reality. Although each theory appears to be justified, they all appear to be so. Therefore, we can’t trust the justifications such theories require us to accept.

    Moreover, it seems that it is highly speculative to think that morality has any relation to reality beyond our personal preferences. If philosophers haven’t identified a true moral theory that explains moral realism after thousands of years, then it seems unlikely that there is such a theory in the first place. Instead, moral realism is probably false. “Right” and “wrong, “good” and “bad” probably don’t refer to facts about the world. Instead, they could just be expressions of our preferences and approval.

    We can summarize the Nietzschean Argument from Relativity as the following:

    1. Moral realism requires us to accept certain facts about reality.
    2. There is more than one theory that attempts to tell us the “facts about reality” that moral realism requires.
    3. Such moral theories are speculative and lack sufficient justification.
    4. If there is a true moral theory, then we would have probably found it by now.
    5. Either one moral theory is true or none are because they are incompatible.
    6. We have no reason to accept any of them, so it is plausible that all moral theories are false.
    7. If no moral theory is true, then moral realism is probably false.
    8. Therefore, moral realism is probably false.

    The Nietzschean argument from relativity is fairly modest because it only claims that we should reject moral realism based on the fact that anti-realism is currently the best explanation for philosophical moral disagreement. Therefore, anti-realism is a view that makes sense, but it might be possible for a rational person to be a moral realist assuming he or she could find a good enough reason to do so.
    Objections

    I will offer two sorts of objections. One, I will consider why certain premises of the argument could be false. Two, I will consider why the argument as a whole might be misguided.

    1. Why might certain premises be false?

    If any premise is false, then the Nietzschean Argument from Disagreement will no longer be sound. I don’t know that any of the premises are false, but I don’t find them all to be completely convincing either. There is some room for doubt. Such room for doubt seriously undermines the strength of the Nietzschean Argument from Relativity because we can’t reject very plausible beliefs, such as the belief in moral realism, unless we have even more plausible reasons to reject them.

    I agree with some of the premises, but I will question premises 4 and 6.

    Premise 4: If there is a true moral theory, then we would have probably found it by now.

    It might be that we know so little about how morality relates to reality that we wouldn’t have found a good theory for it by now. For example, after thousands of years we only recently developed Kantianism and utilitarianism. If these moral theories offer us any insight into morality, then we can expect to make quite a bit of more progress in the future.

    Consider my “lightning explanation example.” I imagine that there might have been quite a few theories that explained the existence of lightning before the existence of modern science. For example, lightning could be caused by light particles, fire, or Zeus’s magic javelin. Philosophers could have debated about which theory is true for thousands of years despite the fact that all of these theories are false. We simply lacked the ability to know where lightning comes from back then.

    Also, consider my “psychology explanation example.” There are many theories to explain the existence of minds. For example, Searle’s emergence theory, Descartes’s substance dualism, and functionalism. None of these theories are entirely satisfying or justified. It seems likely that all of the theories are false. If minds are real, then they are completely unlike anything else that exists. We don’t know for sure how minds can exist, but it seems possible that we will figure it out someday. Such an understanding might require an understanding of emergence phenomena. Additionally, it seems strange to say that minds don’t exist based on persistent disagreement in philosophy of the mind considering our psychological experiences.

    In the same way, we might lack the ability to understand where morality comes from. If intrinsic values are a real part of the universe, then they are radically different from everything else. I have suggested that they seem likely to be an emergent part of the universe, similar to minds. If that is the case, we are currently unable to fully understand morality, but it is still possible that moral realism is true. Additionally, it seems strange to say that morality doesn’t exist based on persistent disagreement in ethical philosophy considering our experiences of benefits and harms.

    Premise 5: We have no reason to accept any of them, so it is plausible that all moral theories are false.

    Even if we do know all of the most plausible moral theories and we have no way to determine which one is right, we would beg the question to assert that all moral theories are false. It might be reasonable for a philosopher to reject all moral theories considering that they might all be false, but it might also be reasonable for a philosopher to adopt whatever moral theory he or she believes to be best. This doesn’t seem to be any different than how many scientists rejected string theory and others adopted string theory despite not knowing for sure whether or not it is true.

    2. Is the Argument Misguided?

    The Nietzschean Argument from Relativity requires us to reject the fact that there is evidence for moral realism, which does not depend on moral theory any more than the evidence that minds exist depends on theories in the philosophy of the mind. Although the specifics of moral theories could all be false, there are certain moral beliefs that seem to be “almost certainly true.” We all agree that intense pain is bad, happiness is good, torturing others willy nilly is wrong, and so on. Why do we think we are certain about these beliefs? Because of our moral experiences. We have felt that pain is bad, we have experienced that happiness is good, and we know that other people’s pain is probably bad just like our own. I have my own argument for moral realism with little to no appeal to moral theory in my essay “An Argument For Moral Realism.” The Nietzschean Argument From Disagreement in no way disproves my conclusion.

    It has been claimed that morality has no explanatory power or causal significance. That might be true if moral realism is false, but it is quite possible that we experience intrinsic values and make decisions based on those experiences. We experience pain, so we try to avoid pain when no benefit is expected to be gained from it. We know other people’s pain is also probably bad, so we decide not to harm others willy nilly, and we pass laws prohibiting torture.

    Conclusion

    I agree that we have a good reason to be skeptical towards moral theories and just about any other speculative philosophical theory. However, I don’t agree that there is no philosophical progress involving those theories and we might sometimes find a good answer. We found a pretty good answer about what causes lightning and we might someday find a good argument that explains where minds come from. Inescapable disagreement concerning the origins of lightning or minds certainly doesn’t prove that lightning and minds don’t exist. In the same way we might one day find out where morality comes from and inevitable disagreement involving the origins of morality doesn’t seem to imply that morality doesn’t exist in a realist sense.

    Finally, we can’t conclude that the best explanation for inevitable moral disagreement concerning moral theories is that moral realism is false when we consider that moral realism has evidence in common sense everyday life, just like the evidence that we have minds.

  • Paul Bloomfield writes “Either there is free will or there is not, and it is a factual, empirical matter which, and philosophers do not agree and are unlikely to do so in the future.” But is this really a factual, empirical matter? I think that the free will debate turns on competing normative claims: competing claims about how the notion of freedom ought to be understood. It may turn out that one way of understanding freedom is better than the alternatives, but not because that understanding captures the facts about freedom.

    It seems to me that the distinctively philosophical character of philosophical disputes lies in the fact that they concern such competing normative claims – even though they are often packaged as disputes about matters of fact.

    Philosophical disputes about ethical theory are, I think of this character. However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that there are no moral facts. Rather, the proper conclusion to be drawn is that philosophers misconstrue their own activity when they conceive of these debates as concerning factual matters.

    • David Livingstone Smith comments on a thought of mine that by replying that which theory of free will is best might not depend on what the facts of freedom are. It sounds as if such a thought either assumes a non-substantial theory of truth or implies that truth is not the aim of belief.

      Regardless of this, it seems much harder to be a “compatibilist” about the debate in the philosophy of science, between instrumentalists and realists, than in the debate over free will; it is hard to make sense of the claim that the best theory about science does not depend upon the facts of its subject matter.

  • We are in agreement with those who’ve argued that Leiter’s Nietzschean argument against moral realism is unsuccessful and won’t belabor the point. Instead, we’ll argue that the “Nietzschean argument” he proposes isn’t Nietzschean. Nietzsche certainly rejects the claims of moral philosophers from Plato to Kant, but he does take the fact that they disagree as a reason for this rejection. He rejects their claims because their arguments fail. That is, they fail to show what they purport to show, namely, that true moral claims can be derived from some proposition (be it the Kant’s categorical imperative or the Mill’s utilitarian principle) that can be doubted only on pains of irrationality. To think that moral claims can be so derived is to endorse (what we’ll call) “foundationalism” about values. Nietzsche rejects this foundationalism as false. That, however, is not a problem for value claims, but for the pretensions of the philosophers who have theorized about them. To paraphrase Clemenza, Nietzsche urges us to leave the pretensions to foundationalism, keep the value claims.

    But what of the passages Leiter quotes as evidence that Nietzsche argues from disagreement to the bankruptcy of moral claims? We’ll consider them in the order he does. First, the following from the Nachlass:

    It is a very remarkable moment: the Sophists verge upon the first critique of morality, the first insight into morality:–they juxtapose the multiplicity (the geographical relativity) of the moral value judgments [Moralischen Werthurtheile];–they let it be known that every morality can be dialectically justified; i.e., they divine that all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical—a proposition later proved on the grand scale by the ancient philosophers, from Plato onwards (down to Kant);–they postulate the first truth that a “morality-in-itself” [eine Moral an sich], a “good-in-itself” do not exist, that it is a swindle to talk of “truth” in this field. (WP:428; KSA 13:14[116]).

    In connection with this section, Leiter says,

    Nietzsche’s thought must be that that all these philosophers appear to provide ‘dialectical justifications’ for moral propositions, but that all these justifications actually fail. But that still does not answer the question of how the fact of there being all these different moral philosophies proves that they are sophistical, i.e., that they do not, in fact, justify certain fundamental moral propositions?

    While we agree with Leiter’s first sentence, we find the second problematic. He apparently assumes that Nietzsche takes the fact that the Sophists note the “multiplicity (the geographical relativity) of the moral value judgments” to prove that “all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical.” But that’s certainly not evident from the above passage. Notice that the clauses of the sentence are separated by semi-colons; this opens the possibility that the claims of these clauses are simply a list of the things Nietzsche takes the Sophists to have claimed. We need not think that Nietzsche takes any one of these claims as evidence for any other.

    What he does take as evidence for the claim that “all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical” is the history of moral philosophy since the time of the Sophists; the claim is “proved on the grand scale by the ancient philosophers, from Plato onwards (down to Kant).” But it’s not the fact that these philosophers disagree that shows that their “attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical” – it is because all their arguments for foundationalism about value claims fail.

    Now consider the second passage Leiter quotes, this one from BGE 5. Speaking of philosophers, Nietzsche says,

    They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic…while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, a kind of “inspiration”—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons sought after the fact. They are all advocates who don’t want to be called by that name, and for the most part even wily spokesman for their prejudices which they baptize “truths.” (BGE 5)

    Nietzsche is criticizing philosophers here, no doubt. Their self-conception fails to match what they actually do: they claim to reach conclusions due to a “divinely unconcerned dialectic” when in fact they express “a desire of the heart … made abstract,” which “they defend with reasons sought after the fact.” Leiter here assumes that Nietzsche criticizes these philosophers for what they do – as if he thinks that if they are going to be engaged in dialectic (and how else could they count as philosophers?), what they need is a dialectic that is more “divinely unconcerned.” In fact, however, Nietzche is criticizing these philosophers not for what they do, but for their self-conception: they should be honest enough to see that “to defend” one’s “desire of the heart” with “reasons sought after the fact” is what philosophy does.

    Is this a reason to reject philosophy? It would be so only if one thinks that philosophy’s success depends on the truth of foundationalism; only if, that is, one thinks that philosophy’s purpose is to derive truths (moral or otherwise) from some proposition that can be doubted only on pains of irrationality. There is little reason, however, to think that Nietzsche thinks of philosophy in this way. In fact, we’d argue, his goal in BGE’s “The Prejudices of the Philosophers” is not to urge philosophers to shed their prejudices (more obviously in German than English, “prejudgments”), but to acknowledge their necessity.

    Nietzsche’s position is not unlike the one taken by Gary Gutting in his recent book, What Philosophers Know (Gutting 2009). The following passage is worth quoting at length:

    According to the view I’ve called philosophical foundationalism, the project of philosophy is to provide compelling arguments for or against our convictions, so that our beliefs can be put on a solid rational basis. But, as I have maintained, one of the most important achievements of recent philosophy has been to discredit this foundationalism. Philosophers themselves have given us good reason to believe that our convictions do not require (and are unlikely, in any case, to receive) compelling philosophical justification. … We need to give up the analytic ideal of argument and forthrightly admit that philosophy must begin from pre-philosophical convictions that have no need for justification by philosophical argument; that, in other words, convictions – and, more broadly, the practices that embed them – do not require philosophical foundations. But although convictions do not require philosophical justification they do require philosophical maintenance. We are intellectual creatures and cannot avoid thinking about our convictions – about what they mean, how we can defend them against challenges, etc. (Gutting 2009, pp 224-5)

    Of course, such maintenance isn’t always possible: our convictions can be subject to real challenges. Sometimes reflection in light of new evidence will (or should) lead us to refine or even reject the convictions with which we began. But the mere fact that our convictions are neither derivable from some indisputable proposition nor shared by all other philosophers does not constitute such a challenge. This, we think, is precisely Nietzsche’s point in those passages of BGE One cited by Leiter.

    Note that we are not claiming that Nietzsche is a moral realist – we’ve argued that Nietzsche’s mature work is best seen as a version of expressivism (Clark and Dudrick 2007). Nor are we denying that Nietzsche has objections to the particular form of morality that find ourselves with today. Here we are simply claiming that Nietzsche did not take the phenomenon of moral disagreement – and specifically that of disagreement among moral philosophers – or the collapse of moral foundationalism to give him any reason to reject moral realism or the claim that moral claims are objectively true. He undoubtedly raises objections to contemporary morality, but the phenomenon of moral disagreement is in no way central to these objections.

    References

    Clark, Maudemarie and Dudrick, David (2007). “Nietzsche and Moral Objectivity: The Development of Nietzsche’s Metaethics.” In B. Leiter and N. Sinhababu (eds.) Nietzsche and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press)

    Gutting, Gary (2009). What Philosophers Know (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

  • Brian Leiter argues against moral realism from the disagreement of moral philosophers about the foundations of the subject.

    Before turning to consider Leiter’s argument, we might note that the association of Nietzsche with opposition to moral, or at least value, realism is questionable, if not dubious. For Nietzsche consistently believed in objective orders of rank among human beings. He thought that Goethe, Napoleon, Beethoven were especially excellent as human beings. No scepticism or relativity there. Moreover, his constant deployment of metaphors of height signals a hierarchical kind of evaluation of the lives of human beings and their achievements, one that makes no sense given the kind of view that Leiter endorses. He may be sceptical, in the colloquial sense, about the judgements of this or that group of evaluators, or about certain types of religious evaluations. But that is not at all the same as a general sceptical or relativist view about value, and indeed Nietzsche’s objections to certain views (such as “slavish” ones) reveals a non-sceptical and non-relativist standpoint.

    Putting that to one side, I isolate three kinds of worry with the Leiter’s argument:

    §1.
    On a realist view of most domains, there are facts of a certain kind, which are distinct from our beliefs about them. (The exceptions are realism about the mental or about domains, such as the artifactual, that depend on the mental.) Leiter’s argument takes off from what he takes to be an epistemological commitment of moral realism. He thinks that if there are moral facts, then we should expect there to be convergence in our beliefs about those facts. That is, should there be widely shared true beliefs about those facts, under ideal condition of enquiry. Leiter assumes this as the basis for his argument.

    Such a convergence thesis is problematic and questionable. Where there is such convergence, we might expect it to hold in virtue of the facts in question. Given that rabbits are real, we might expect convergence on true beliefs about rabbits. And that convergence would hold partly in virtue of the rabbits. The rabbits themselves are part of the explanation of our true beliefs about them.

    However, in many domains where we are inclined towards realism, we think that there are many cases of radically inaccessible facts. For example, most philosophers would embrace realism about the past and future despite thinking that many facts about the past and the future are inaccessible to us. (For example facts about the number of blades of grass on the Whitehouse lawn one hundred years ago are inaccessible.) A philosopher could doggedly insist that such facts are somehow knowable by us in principle. But I do not envy the philosopher who takes on the task of trying to characterise a plausible and non-trivial version of such a doctrine.

    Suppose, though, for the sake of argument, that we accept a convergence thesis for moral realism. Perhaps it has some special plausibility there. There is then a large question about the optimal conditions for acquiring true moral beliefs, whether foundational or ordinary ones. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Leiter’s essay is his assumption that circumstances of academic reflection and discussion would be the most suitable for arriving at truths about the matter in question. Why is the academic philosopher’s position somehow epistemologically privileged? The idea seems to be the having the leisure calmly to reflect and discuss these issues somehow makes truth acquisition more likely.

    Again, exegetically, we might note that, of all philosophers, surely the very last to endorse such a view would be Nietzsche! It is exactly his critique of Kant’s notion of disinterestedness concerning pleasures and judgements of beauty that it is not correct that detached and impersonal (‘Apollonian’?) conditions of cool abstraction from desire are ideal conditions for appreciating beauty (see The Genealogy of Morals). Nietzsche protests that a purely contemplative (or apparently contemplative) attitude might in fact be a less ideal condition for judging beauty than that of passionate engagement.

    Similarly, surely he would also critique the idea that thinking about how to live was best done by Apollonian contemplators who are sophisticated, urbane, self-reflective, and who discuss matters of substance in a cool disengaged way. It is not implausible that what is known as ‘the ivory tower’ is a bad place for thinking about moral questions. Yes, academics have time and inclination for reflection and the institutional structures for discussion and debate. But, on the other hand, the temptations besetting the academic are great — in particular, the temptations of vanity, of persuading oneself that one occupies the intellectual or moral high ground, especially in a public forum, are especially seductive. For example, I recently read an interview with Slovo Zizek where he said that the solution to the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian problem was, I quote, “obvious”. Now, there are many interesting things to say of many kinds about that political issue — but that the solution is “obvious” is not among them. In fact this is plain idiocy. This example serves to illustrate the way the academic milieu, with its various temptations, is not obviously an ideal place to form beliefs about moral or political matters. Similarly with more abstruse foundational questions.

    Thus even if we grant a convergence doctrine, it is unobvious that academic philosophers would be in an especially good position to acquire important moral truths.

    Another exegetical remark. Suppose that people, even people-philosophers, did tend to converge in moral judgement. Which philosopher would be the least likely to think that truth is to be found in the judgements of the many? Surely Nietzsche, who was profoundly elitist. He would hardly care about the judgements of the herd, even if it is a herd of academic moral philosophers. (Perhaps a herd of sheep goes “baa” and a herd of cows goes “moo” and a herd of moral philosophers goes “reasons”!)

    §2.
    In one passage Leiter quotes Nietzsche claiming that the moral judgements of philosophers are best explained by their psychologies. Maybe so. Nothing about realism follows from that, nor I think does Nietzsche think so. It may show that moral philosophers are not to be trusted. But moral philosophers form a tiny proportion of those who make moral judgements and there is no reason to think that they will be especially good at tracking foundational or ordinary moral facts.

    What Nietzsche alleges is that many philosophers’ ‘reasons’ are in fact rationalizations, and perhaps that is right. But why should that be a problem for a moral realist? The cure is to be sceptical about the project of giving reasons, not to abandon moral facts. Why suppose that the truth in morality is best achieved by a process of reasoning or interpersonal debate? Consider our Father, Socrates — he to whom all Philosophers owe their being as philosophers. Socrates certainly does pursue the giving of reasons for the application of moral concepts, and he pursues public debate about them. But, as Mark McFerran has insightfully explored (in his book The Religion of Socrates), Socrates’ philosophy had a crucial religious ingredient; and reasoning and debate served to supplement a prior form of access to morality, which was via the oracle at Delphi and via his inner mystical voice. It is perhaps an irony that the origins of the Western pursuit of rationalizing and reflection have a religious source. No Delphic Oracle, no philosophical dialectic, debate, reflection and all the rest that has followed in Western civilization. There is something primordial at the root of the critical reflective reason-giving project.

    §3.
    Moral philosophers are in the business of theorizing, for the most part. And as Leiter notes, there are a plurality of views in moral philosophy with no hope in sight of consensus. Is this a bad thing? Does it reveal that there is something wrong with the pursuit of moral philosophy? Perhaps it is just that the subject is very hard indeed. If so, we need to try harder, not give up.

    Moreover, although it is true that the clash between consequentialists, Kantians and Aristotelians shows no sign of abating, there has always been at least one other persistent strand in moral philosophy, and that is the anti-theoretical strand, perhaps embodied by Bernard Williams. Such theorists oppose the monolithic ambitions of many moral philosophers. But they do this from a point within the subject, not as a form of scepticism about it. Perhaps the moral theorist’s pursuit of theoretical elegance can only be attained by falsifying the subject matter of moral philosophy. So say many anti-theorists.

    There is a certain bullying approach that some moral philosophers have towards the untutored moral judgements of the folk (the peasants, proletarians and plebeians): “Why do you say that?”; “Why does that make a moral difference?” asks the moral philosopher, like an annoying child who has just discovered that one can always ask “Why?” to any answer to a “Why?” question. But explanations come to an end in moral philosophy perhaps sooner than the theorist desires. It is one of healthy aspects of moral philosophy that such an anti-theoretic voice has often been represented in the subject. But such a voice is no ‘moral scepticism’ of the kind Leiter would embrace.

  • Cristy Yonetani

    Brian Leiter’s Neitzschean argument might have been convincing in Nietzsche’s day, but it seems we have a new response available to us. As Joshua Knobe has already pointed out, “one approach would be to continue our practice of using the methods of moral philosophy to figure out whether these views are correct; another would be to abandon this practice entirely and give up on the whole project of moral philosophy as it is currently conceived.” (my italics). I suggest that we may already be in the midst of such a reconception of moral philosophy. With the emergence (resurgence?) of inter-disciplinary discussion, new fields such as moral psychology, experimental philosophy, and neuroethics may help to resolve hitherto intractable disagreements. Sam Harris makes a persuasive argument for this (available at Project Reason). Leiter’s Nietzschean argument rests on an empirical claim about the state of moral philosophy. If the state of moral philosophy has changed (as I suggest it has), the argument ought to take this into account.

  • I have four comments.

    First, we need to distinguish between the claim that there are no objective moral truths and the claim that we do not or cannot have knowledge of any objective moral truths – the later view seems to be more aptly described by the word “skepticism.” Although disagreement between competent reasonable judges in a given domain of inquiry is prima facie reason to question whether we can have knowledge of objective truths in that domain, such disagreement does not support the view that there are no objective truths in that domain. Suppose that after extensive inquiry and debate, expert historians disagree about whether Abraham Lincoln had sexual relations with anyone prior to his marriage. This disagreement would provide strong prima facie evidence for thinking we don’t know whether or not Lincoln had sexual relations prior to his marriage and it might show that, absent new evidence from undiscovered historical documents, we cannot know the truth about this. But surely there is an objective truth about this matter. Leiter’s view commits him to the view that moral truths (if they exist) are very much unlike truths about history. I am broad in agreement with this. I think that the best theory about the nature of moral truth is that moral truths are constituted by the agreement of rational judges/agents, but this claim is controversial.

    Second, Leiter’s arguments stress disagreements about fundamental questions of ethical theory between philosophers, e.g., disagreements between Kantians, Utilitarians, and Rossians about theories of right and wrong. I grant that this disagreement is not only evidence for thinking that we don’t/can’t know which if any of these theories is true – it is also evidence for the view none of these general theories is objectively true. But it doesn’t follow that there are altogether no moral truths. It might be the case that these and all other defensible theories of right and wrong agree about many particular moral questions, for example, that, other things equal, we should help others, that, other things equal, we should not harm others, and that lies that cause more harm than good are wrong. I think that such judgments are objectively true. For a defense of the view that there are objective moral facts constituted by the partial overlap or convergence of reasonable moral theories see my book (Lying and Deception: Theory and Practice [Oxford, 2010]), Chapters 6 and 7.

    Third I think that some of the disagreements that Leiter mentions, e.g., disagreements between Aristotle and other proponents of virtue ethics and utilitarians and Kantians, are disagreements about which concepts we should wield or make central in our theories. Disagreements about concepts raise special issues that Leiter’s essay doesn’t directly address. Nietzsche has much to say about this. He argues that we should reject certain concepts central to western moral philosophy – the concepts of guilt and moral responsibility and (?) the concept of moral obligation.

    Fourth, the existence of extensive disagreement about metaethical questions, including the question of whether there are objective moral truths, creates very serious problems for Leiter. The logic of his view seems to commit him to saying that there are no objective truths about controversial metaethical questions and that there are no objective (metaethical) facts about whether or not there are objective moral facts (about first-order moral questions).

  • The professed target of Leiter’s skeptical argument is morality generally, but in spite of some references to pre-modern philosophers, the idea of morality that he has in mind seems to be distinctively _modern_ morality. As a skeptical argument against modern moral theory, I think Leiter’s case is rather plausible. His argument reproduces many of the same considerations which led Anscombe (in “Modern Moral Philosophy” [1958]), and more lately Foot and MacIntyre, to think that modern moral theory is a conceptually confused project that needs to re-examine its foundations. MacIntyre particularly has made similar points about Nietzsche (first in _After Virtue_ and then in _Whose Justice? Which Rationality?_ and finally in _Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry_), but of course he deploys Nietzchean arguments in the service of re-establishing a form of moral realism. Indeed MacIntyre has gone to great lengths to examine how rival traditions of moral theory can engage rationally.

    So if Leiter wants to argue for full bore skepticism about morality generally, then he needs to address Anscombe, MacIntyre et al. He would have to adduce further reasons for why his argument applies equally to pre-modern conceptions of moral theory, which unlike modern ones, conceive of theory as subordinate to the practice of philosophy as a way of life. (Cf. Pierre Hadot, _Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault_ and M. F. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to be Good”.) Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Augustine and Aquinas would agree with Nietzsche that philosophy is a “personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” and they would be unsurprised that the allegedly “ideal” conditions for moral inquiry in modern academia produced deep disagreement.

  • Leigh Van Valen

    Is this discussion a teapot viewing a tempest? Let’s look more deeply, even if it seems elementary.

    How do we know anything? There aren’t many ways. Introspection gives knowledge of certain internal states. Observation gives knowledge of the immediate outside world. Induction generalizes observation. Successful prediction can reveal trivial to universal phenomena. Deduction gives consequences, sometimes remote (as with mathematics), of assumptions. (Both Darwin and Wallace originally discovered the power of natural selection by means of an implicit deduction from well-established premises.) We rely on sources we trust, when we have to. Ockham’s razor merges with all.

    Of course I simplify. But there aren’t any other basic ways of /knowing/ anything, as distinct from belief. Knowledge requires some sort of evidence, of justification, even though an inference may be false.

    Some people say that there are other ways of knowing, such as religious revelation, artistic insight, general acceptance, or intuition. These provide belief, in a broad sense, and the belief may be strong enough in some people to overrule results from evidence. But knowledge, which may be quite tentative, is distinct from even strong belief. It is justified by our experience.

    There are no Kantian a prioris. We aren’t born even with knowledge of logic. Even if we were, it could still be fallacious, like the sensory paradoxes. Still, we are able to live our lives, because of what we learn and what natural selection has built into us. Natural selection has preserved what has succeeded in the relevant past. When environments change, as with the evolutionarily very recent origins of civilizations, some of what has been preserved can now be deleterious, as can happen for other reasons also.

    With ethics we immediately bump into the naturalistic fallacy, that ‘is’ sometimes implies ‘ought’. Everybody (a reference set that commonly excludes psychopaths and others with whom we disagree) believes that x is good. So what? I just know that x is good. On what basis?

    We have to start somewhere. The fallaciousness of the naturalistic fallacy directly implies that we can’t start from the world itself, which includes ourselves. We can, though, start from one or more underlying principles and see what follows. Ah, but what underlying principles? That’s where the discussion here starts. Why accept principle x rather than principle y? Well, there’s intuition and other such motivations. Unfortunately, motivations don’t provide justification.

    In mathematics and physics, axiomatization is often used to specify the domain, or a minimal domain, for theories justified otherwise. We seem to do the same in ethics. Moral principles seem firmer than their foundations. Why? This is a causal question on which I lack adequate evidence. We may hypothesize, e.g., that it results from our socialization and the relative success of different forms of socialization. The success of hypocrisy calls this hypothesis into question.

    Yes, we have no foundations (or bananas today, as the song goes). Unfortunate, but true, the Mikado said in another context. Thus we are unable to /rationally/ confront psychopaths and others. We can nevertheless do so, as in fact we do, by power. Might isn’t right, but it has power. A functioning society needs internalized norms that are widely shared within it (an inference from sociology rather than ethics). It is interesting that a few are as widely shared as they are, worldwide.

    Also, lack of foundations doesn’t prevent us from having strong moral convictions, however they were derived during our development. I slightly risked my life (and was briefly jailed) for one that is now widely accepted. I have foregone very large amounts of money, with associated reduction in respect, for another. In the first case I marginally helped change a moral standard. In the second case I persisted despite hypocrisy by academics who claimed to share the same principle.

    So what can I say to a psychopath or a warrior culture? Just that I strongly disagree and hope that they change or are suppressed. They can, unfortunately, say the same to me.

  • Andrew Donnelly

    The discussion on Leiter’s paper thus far suggests that there is some confusion over which precise thesis Leiter’s argument from disagreement might support. I think that three related theses need to be distinguished:

    (1) Moral skepticism: We must suspend judgment as to whether there are any moral facts.

    (2) Moral anti-realism: It is not the case that there are any moral facts.

    (3) Error theory: (i) Moral sentences express propositions and, (ii) all of these propositions are false.

    As Leiter framed his argument, he is only explicitly arguing for the second thesis. However, Nietzsche himself is sometimes thought to be an error theorist as well as a moral anti-realist (see Pigden 2007, 444). In this brief comment, I will suggest that one of the premises of Leiter’s argument is inconsistent with the error theory. Consequently, if Nietzsche was an error theorist, then not only does Leiter’s argument not support Nietzsche’s particular meta-ethical theory, it undermines that theory.

    For Leiter, a fact requiring explanation is that “no rational consensus has been secured on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality”. He then goes on to list various propositions which have been the subject of profound disagreement such as “is the criterion of right action the reasons for which it is performed or the consequences it brings about?” But Leiter fails to recognize that many of these disagreements are disagreements about conceptual or semantic propositions. Often consequentialism or rationalism are framed as semantic propositions. For example, consider G.E. Moore on consequentialism: “The assertion ‘I am morally bound to perform this action’ is identical [read ‘identical’ as 'synonymous'] with the assertion ‘This action will produce the greatest amount of good in the universe’.” (1903, ch. 5, §89). Or, consider Michael Smith on moral rationalism: “what I have called ‘rationalism’ is simply a claim about our concept of rightness’ (1994, 65). So, at least some of the fundamental meta-ethical disagreement that Leiter is referring to is semantic disagreement – disagreement about what we mean when we engage in moral discourse.

    Of particular interest is that Leiter does not mention in his list of areas of disagreement perhaps the biggest semantic dispute of all. Namely, the dispute over whether or not moral sentences express propositions (often described as the ‘cognitivism/non-cognitivism’ dispute, though ‘semantic factualism/non-factualism’ is, perhaps, a more accurate description of the dispute). What could be a more fundamental point of meta-ethical disagreement than the disagreement over whether or not semantic factualism is true?

    In my view, this particular semantic disagreement seriously undermines the error theory. If Leiter thinks that profound disagreement over meta-ethical propositions licenses the general inference that those propositions are false, he is committed to thinking that profound disagreement over the semantic propositions (a subset of the meta-ethical propositions) licenses the inference that all those semantic propositions are false. However, recall that the error theory is committed to a particular side in the factualism/non-factualism dispute. For error theory to be true, semantic factualism must be true.

    In summary, Nietzsche is sometimes taken to be not only a moral anti-realist, but a particular type of moral anti-realist, an error theorist. However, Leiter’s argument seems to entail that all those semantic meta-ethical propositions over which there is profound disagreement are false. Given that there is profound disagreement about a proposition that error theory is committed to, then according to Leiter’s argument, error theory must also be false. So, if indeed Nietzsche was an error theorist, then Leiter’s argument from disagreement is not good news for Nietzsche.

    Works cited:

    Moore, G.E. (1903). Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Pigden, C. R. (2010). “Nihilism, Nietzsche, and the doppelganger problem,” in R. Joyce and S. Kirchin (eds.) A World Without Values: Essays on John Mackie’s Moral Error Theory. Springer Press.

    Smith, M (1994). The Moral Problem. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  • Thanks to everyone who has contributed thus far. Reminder: OTH discussions officially close at 5:00 pm EDT on the second Tuesday after the post appears, or April 6 in this case.

  • Don Loeb

    I think contributors and readers alike will share in my gratitude to Brian Leiter and the National Humanities Center for facilitating the outpouring of high quality (if sometimes repetitious) philosophical discussion, in a publically accessible forum, we see above. Leiter picks up on an argument I (and apparently some German guy) once put forward—that of all the moral disagreement that might be thought problematic for moral realism (and perhaps other approaches—see below) disagreement among philosophers is especially troubling. I still think this is correct, but I have one small qualm about Leiter’s version of the argument. Before getting to that, however, I want to outline some areas of concurrence between Leiter and me, try to go a bit farther in characterizing and locating the argument, and talk a bit about why I do not find some of the arguments made in response to Leiter very convincing. I’m sorry that my comment is so long, but I hope it casts some light on what’s at issue here.

    To begin, I am not too concerned about the dispute over whether the view Leiter (and I) wish to defend is called moral skepticism or moral irrealism (or anti-realism for that matter). To many of us, the word “skepticism” suggests an epistemological position, but there is another, easily recognized sense (whether etymologically fitting or not) in which the words means pretty much the same thing, and that is the sense Leiter is employing (as did Mackie).

    Actually, I think that if the argument from (moral) disagreement should worry anyone, it should worry (in addition to moral realists) some who do not classify themselves as realists: constructivists, some expressivists (pace Mike Ridge), Kantians, and anyone else who claims that moral questions (often, or maybe typically) have right answers—people holding a collection of views much wider than the set containing only those who are thought of (or think of themselves) as moral realists. I think that the divide between these factualists (as I call them) and non-factualists (error theorists, classical subjectivists, simple non-cognitivists like Ayer, and incoherentists—ok, “ist”) is in many ways more interesting and useful than the distinction between realists and irrealists (if the latter distinction can be made clearly at all). For starters, acceptance or rejection of moral facts, truths, or correctness (I’ll just say “facts” henceforth) is itself a pretty significant fault line in metaethics. Intuitively, views that have a place for such things have much more in common with one another, on the whole, than they do with views that do not.

    It would take reasoning —maybe fairly fine grained reasoning—to show that the argument from disagreement applies to each view in this category, but any such reasoning would have to proceed from an understanding of the core argument from disagreement itself, and getting that clearer will also help us to see the structure of Leiter’s argument. In particular, it is puzzling to many of the commentators why moral disagreement among anyone is supposed to count against moral factualism. An explanation is wanted.

    There is more than one way to fill out the core argument. But one of the most promising approaches claims that moral disagreement is strong evidence against our having epistemic access—a way of knowing or forming justified beliefs about—moral facts, and from there argues that we have no good reason to believe in such facts. The argument might focus either on disagreement about the methodology of moral reasoning, on disagreement in moral belief itself, or more likely on both. Indeed, disagreement in the methodology of moral reasoning might help to explain disagreement in moral belief. But there are still many unanswered questions. For one thing, why does disagreement count against access? For another, why (if at all) does lack of access count against factualism?

    A couple of analogies might help us better to understand the argument. Suppose I claim that most people have a faculty of extra-sensory perception that allows us to “see” the rank and suit of an overturned card. (I am not saying that moral knowledge is like this in more than the one salient respect.) To test the claim, I have each of twenty people write down what she believes to be the rank and suit of a particular card. Suppose that all twenty subjects give different answers. In such a case I have some reason to doubt that the faculty in question exists, at least within this population.

    Note that my reason for doubting that the faculty exists seems to be largely independent of whether I myself know the card’s rank and suit. And even if one of the twenty subjects does give the right answer, the experiment still gives me warrant (albeit to a slightly lower degree) for thinking that this was merely a coincidence. It could be that only that subject (among those tested) actually has the faculty. Indeed, even if none of the subjects gives the correct answer, it could be that someone else has the faculty. Likewise, even if no one gives the correct answer, it’s still possible that several of these subjects do have the faculty but that for some reason it is not working well on this occasion.

    But these hypotheses seem desperate, and not simply because this sort of ESP already seems unlikely. When it comes to a (largely) empirical issue like this, we shouldn’t let the tail of theory wag the dog of evidence any more than we have to. The experiment itself provides evidence against the claimed faculty. Of course the evidence is only probabilistic, and should be seen as supporting only a somewhat tentative inference to the best explanation. Twenty cases and one card are nowhere near enough. Further testing could greatly strengthen or weaken the case. But if many people in lots of circumstances get the answer wrong, and get it right only in roughly the same proportions as would be produced by random chance, then we have powerful evidence that we lack epistemic access to facts about the rank and suit of overturned playing cards, and quite likely to other, similar matters as well.

    Even so, we know that there are facts about the identities of playing cards, and our inability to discern these identities when the cards are face down does not count against there being such facts. We can modify the argument to avoid this worry. A better analogy, then, involves so-called auras. Suppose I claim that humans have a different sort of ESP—a faculty for discerning one another’s auras, distinguished by their colors. If, when I ask the same twenty people what color a particular person’s aura is, they all give different answers, I have the beginnings of a pretty good reason to doubt, not simply that we can discern what people’s auras are, but that people have auras at all. For the only marginally plausible reason we might have for believing in auras in the first place is that people believe that they are detecting them.

    Although I think a central version of the argument form moral disagreement is best understood along lines somewhere in the neighborhood of these, there are still (or in some cases may be) big disanalogies between the ESP cases and that of moral disagreement. In the moral case, a central question will be whether we have independent grounds for believing that moral facts exist. Perhaps even more important is the fact that there so much more agreement (and so much less disagreement) over moral matters than there is in the two toy cases I have been discussing. This convergence that does exist on moral questions requires explanation in its own right. And a prominent candidate explanation involves moral facts together with some (imperfect) ability in us to discover what they are

    On the other hand, holding the argument to a standard of total or near total moral disagreement seems unwarranted. What the anti-factualist needs is enough disagreement of the right sorts so as to suggest that alternative explanations of convergence in moral beliefs and attitudes, explanations that are incompatible with or obviate the (explanatory) need for moral facts, are more plausible than ones involving people’s coming to be aware of such facts. In this regard, I suspect that mere agreement in moral judgment should not be as much comfort to factualists as it is often thought to be, since disagreement about why an act is morally required [say] is moral disagreement too, and whether convergence among people with widely different theories is after all best explained by truth tracking or by other factors is as yet not established.)

    Even in the card and aura cases, the evidence against the ability to discover the facts (and hence, in the latter case, against the facts themselves) would be undermined if there were highly plausible explanations for why the capacity should not have been expected to work in this particular population—if, for example, the failures typically involved intoxicated subjects, and success rates among the few sober people tested are significantly higher). But note that the mere possibility of such “defusing explanations” is not enough to undermine the evidence disagreement provides against the ability and the facts in question. And we can gather evidence about the defusing explanations themselves. There is, of course, nothing privileged about the no-access explanation. We have to look to the total explanatory picture. As I’ve argued, all too often, people on both sides of the debate have relied on anecdote or speculation, no substitute for good evidence (and probably of little probative value at all.

    The point Leiter (and perhaps his German friend) make about disagreement among philosophers on fundamental moral questions (like utilitarianism vs. Kantianism vs. other approaches) is that the traditional defusing explanations seem obviously not to apply. It seems unlikely that one side to these disputes is typically more biased or prone to special pleading or less morally sophisticated or developed than the other, or that the two sides have important and relevantly different beliefs on non-moral matters, that they are applying the same moral principles to different circumstances (which call for very different sorts of actions), or that the disagreement concerns matters on which we should (arguably) expect disagreement such as cases involving incommensurable but real moral values, equally weighted moral considerations, or indeterminacy. And while, generally speaking, differences in background theory are well known to cause differences in “observation” or judgment, the moral differences among advocates of these conflicting approaches seem to reflect intuitive disagreements rather than to generate them. (At least, that’s the way it feels, for what it is worth).

    One way to try to answer this type of argument is to echo Parfit’s famous claim that ethics is a very young discipline, as some here have. Shafer-Landau, for example, notes that many more people have been working on science than have been working on substantive ethics. Such claims, however, may unfairly downplay the continuity of substantive ethics as explored outside of more narrowly philosophical traditions (or prior to the very productive years that began around the time A Theory of Justice was published and Philosophy and Public Affairs founded) with the ethics about which disagreement among philosophers remains. Brushed aside, for example, is ethical thinking done within religious traditions, perhaps on the ground that the framework, methodology, or presuppositions employed there are so different from “ours” that we ought not to count the religious traditions as reasoning about ethics at all, but about the interpretation of religious texts and dogma, for example.

    This reply seems to me to distort both the history and the issues, however. (Here I find myself echoing that Nietzsche guy again, who, as Leiter shows, scoffs at the more than two millennium long embarrassment of philosophical disagreement on morality.) How much of the moral reasoning done within a religious framework, for example, actually depends on non-moral factual beliefs about God or other religious matters? The answer is some, but certainly not all, not even most (pace Mike Ridge, again). That Pharaoh mistreated the Israelites by enslaving them, that Cain acted wrongly by killing his brother in anger, that Adam and Eve were wrong to attempt to avoid responsibility by blaming others (Eve in Adam’s case, and the serpent in Eve’s) do not depend on any hypotheses about our being God’s property or it being wrong to try to fool God with shoddy excuses, for example. Similarly, anyone who has ever taught Locke on property knows that, agree with him or not, little of interest there (the law of waste or the proviso, for example) depends on the theistic framework in which it is presented.

    The argument also seems overly optimistic. That if we just work long enough on substantive ethics, we’ll resolve enough of our differences to put ethics on a par with science is a possibility, but an unrealized one on which factualists are not yet entitled to rely, especially when deep questions about the methodology of moral reasoning themselves look to be no more tractable than the moral questions themselves.

    If factualists instead (or in addition) claim that sometimes apparent disagreement shows that we are talking about something different than and incommensurable with, say, what the Homeric Greeks were talking about (and so, not disagreeing at all), then so much the worse for moral factualism. That morality is something only recently (and locally) discovered ought to be viewed as anathema to any robust version of that approach.

    I conclude that disagreement among philosophers is, as Leiter and Nietzsche argue, a potentially serious problem for moral factualism. The reason, as I said, is that traditional defusing explanations for moral disagreement do not seem to apply to this dispute. What is interesting, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that Leiter’s paper itself suggests the beginnings of a strategy for responding to this very argument—a family of defusing explanations that might apply especially to moral disagreement among philosophers. The hint is summed up nicely in Leiter’s bitingly Nietzschean final paragraph, though it is directed at the meta-disagreement over whether moral disagreement counts against moral factualism:

    “[W]hat is the best explanation for the meta-disagreement . . . ? 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.”

    If deep and substantive moral disagreements among philosophers can also be explained as owing to “elaborate post-hoc rationalizations for the emotional attachments and psychological needs” of those philosophers, then perhaps the disagreements can be defused after all. We might add (or perhaps just make explicit) that in our profession we put a premium on ingenious defenses of contrasting positions, so it is no wonder that we continue to disagree. We get paid to.

    My own view is that this cynical picture is not entirely fair, and that the disagreements among philosophers reflect the difficulty of coming up with answers that recommend themselves as definitively better. As my son, Isaac, pointed out to me, philosophers would not have been likely to dig in so hard on certain normative questions and not others if each side had not antecedently found the varying positions to be both plausible and reflective of deep seated normative commitments and beliefs. There are plenty of controversial positions to spend one’s time defending, without inventing ones that do not touch normative (or other) chords in us. You do not find philosophers disagreeing (much, anyway) about the law of the excluded middle, the wrongness of killing for hire (at least among those who think anything is ever right or wrong) or about whether animals even feel pain. In each case, part of the explanation is that the other side of the question simply isn’t very plausible to practically anyone. More often than not we pick philosophical issues to (get paid to) disagree about because there are genuine differences to start with, and that seems to be the case with respect to Kantian and utilitarian intuitions, and other deep-seated disagreements among moral philosophers to which Leiter and Nietzsche point.

  • David Wong

    Leiter argues that the best explanation of apparently intractable disagreement over the foundational issues of morality is that
    (1) there are no objective facts about fundamental moral propositions, such that (2) it is possible to construct apparent dialectical justifications for moral propositions, even though (3) the best explanation for these theories is not that their dialectical justifications are sound but that they answer to the psychological needs of philosophers.
    I’m uncertain as to what precisely Leiter means by “objective moral facts,” but I agree that there are no facts that could settle the disagreements among deontologists, consequentialists, and virtue theorists such that there is a single correct normative theory. I further think that these different theorists could construct coherent justifications for their conclusions based on premises that are not obviously false. The third proposition presents what is undoubtedly a factor in the best possible explanation of the different normative theories or morality that philosophers have presented, defended, attacked, and elaborated in many intricate directions. Who could deny that our own psychological needs play some kind of role? The question is whether they play the primary role in the best explanation.

    Any fair debate about what constitutes the best explanation would have to involve very long explanatory stories from the different contenders. I am in partial agreement with Leiter in thinking that the persistence of disagreement among smart and informed people over foundational normative questions—e.g., whether moral truth is best captured by Kantian values or utilitarian values or by a set of virtues or by some hybrid of these—is a significant reason for thinking that there are no facts that could settle the matter. It isn’t a sufficient reason by itself, however, because any plausible explanation of persistent and fundamental moral disagreement will rest on many different theoretical assumptions, including assumptions about what an adequate explanation will have to look like (e.g., whether it should be “naturalistic” and what that means). In this forum, let me just express why I think that someone who agrees with Leiter on (1) and (2), and who furthermore is also disposed to accept a naturalistic explanation of what a morality is, could reject (3) and assert that psychological needs, varying cognitive styles, social processes, and normative constraints would have to share more or less equal roles in the best explanation of disagreements among moral philosophers; moreover, these factors interact in ways that make them an ensemble cast. The individual and his psychological needs is just one player, not the star.

    Much of the content of morality across different historical periods and cultures is common or at least overlapping in concerning duties such as ones that parents and children have to one another, ones that specify what sort of cooperation or help one owes to others, and ones that specify when and with respect to whom one should refrain from harming. I hold that this is no accident because I defend a constructivist view of the origin of morality, according to which the criteria for applying moral concepts are laid down not to identify independently existing moral properties but to provide a normative structure to their cooperative activities. Given widespread propensities of human beings (I avoid the term ‘human nature’ because of its essentialist connotations), cooperative structures effectively designed for them should possess certain broad features. For example, a norm requiring agents to reciprocate help from others plays a crucial role in reconciling the strong self-interest of human beings with the demands of cooperation; it is not that human beings lack other-regarding concerns, but reciprocation from people they help reduces conflict between these types of motivation and therefore the cost incurred by acting on the other-regarding concerns. Possession of a norm requiring reciprocation is one of the normative constraints on what could constitute an adequate morality for human beings.

    If morality does have the function of providing a normative structure for social cooperation, there is pressure for convergence in judgments. Children are instructed in the criteria for the correct or truthful application of moral concepts. They are not taught that they may employ criteria of their own choosing, and tolerance of difference or individual creativity in how these criteria are interpreted or revised by individuals is limited. But if morality is a social construction, we can expect that such pressure for convergence results only in rough and approximate agreement. A morality could meet a function such as structuring and facilitating social cooperation and still allow for plenty of differences among its adherents. This is because the sort of constraint of which I have just given an example (possession of a reciprocity norm) is something like a mid-level generalization: it is consistent with a variety of different specifications; it can be given different rankings relative to other kinds of moral requirements (in comparison to most other cultures, for example, reciprocity in traditional Chinese culture is quite central and takes distinctive forms as its required forms are specified more concretely); and it can be derived from different sets of moral general values or moral norms. Under this sort of naturalistic picture, we can expect moralities to be dynamic, with some broad features remaining pretty constant but otherwise evolving in the way cultural norms tend to evolve: their interpretation and actual constitution can get revised through normative deliberation, but they are also shaped by nonnormative factors such as the influence of competing interests belonging to different individuals and groups.

    The pressure for convergence in judgments comes from the advantage that convergence provides to social cooperation, but social cooperation may only require a degree of convergence that falls far short of unanimity or even widespread consensus. Countervailing pressures work in favor of divergence. An important factor is the many-sidedness of human psyches, which tends to create some degree of internal tension and the possibility of oscillation between conflicting values. Another factor is that a society may need to draw from different psychological types because different types are suited for different roles (Wong, forthcoming), and these types will be attracted to different configurations of values. Differences can be functional for social cooperation but also lead to disagreement that has to be (and often is) managed for the sake of continuing cooperation between those who disagree.

    Moral philosophers typically try to regiment and reconstruct the diverse, unruly and vague values of lay morality. Some attempt to show that one kind of value, say, from consequentialism or Kantian ethics or virtue ethics, underlies and makes the best sense of that morality (this is the kind of project I interpret to be the sort of “foundational” project that Leiter says we moral philosophers cannot agree upon). The pressure for convergence in lay morality and the presence of certain constraints (such as the need for a reciprocity norm) on what the content of an adequate morality could look like, I submit, accounts for a measure of broad agreement among moral philosophers. Very often, consequentialists, deontologists, and virtue theorists are not in radical disagreement on what duties people have at the mid-level of generalization. For example, advocates of strongly impartialist theories such as consequentialism or Kantian ethics often try to make room for the apparently disproportionate (from an impartialist viewpoint) importance that personal relationships and personal commitments have in lay morality. At the same time, there are philosophers who resist the reconciling move and declare lay morality wrong where it conflicts with their favored normative approach. In general, I find arguments for the superiority of one or another of these contrasting approaches quite unconvincing. The result is incomplete consensus even on this mid-level of generalization, and continued and deep dispute at the foundational level. The constructed nature of morality and the strong pressures for divergence doom attempts to provide some single, correct, deep theoretical basis that will regiment our messy lay moralities. Undoubtedly the psychological needs and temperaments of individual philosophers play a role in influencing which normative theories philosophers find deeply congenial, or on the meta-ethical level, their positions on the question of whether such regimenting foundational projects are a good idea or not, but deliberation on normative constraints, social processes, and the differing cognitive dispositions or styles of individuals also play roles.

    Let me focus on the last factor. The psychologists Geoffrey Goodwin and John Darley have conducted studies in which they asked their participants whether they thought that there could be a correct answer as to whether a particular ethical belief was true (or alternatively, whether they thought that a particular belief that they held was true, as opposed to being an opinion or attitude); and whether they thought that a person who disagreed with them about the belief was mistaken, or whether instead neither party need be mistaken in the face of disagreement. These questions were directed at tapping into the participants’ perceptions of the objectivity of ethical beliefs. They found that most, but not all participants attached a strong degree of objectivity to ethical beliefs, but perhaps most interestingly, found that the degree of objectivity attributed varied with the type of belief, e.g., a belief about the morality of abortion was attributed a considerably lesser degree of objectivity than other beliefs such as those concerning the wrongness of inflicting harm (Goodwin and Darley, 2008). In another study, Goodwin and Darley (2010) found some evidence that those more likely to take a subjectivist stance showed a disposition to try to explain why there is disagreement over an ethical issue in terms of the parties holding different values. Those who tended to take the objectivist stance were less interested in explaining disagreement and tended either to disbelieve that someone else could disagree with them or put the disagreement down to some moral defect of the other. Goodwin and Darley suggest that the cognitive tendency (“disjunctive thinking”) to active unpack alternative possibilities while reasoning lies behind the tendency to explain disagreement.

    Differences in cognitive styles might underlie differing reactions to an argument that I have made (2006), to the effect that when fundamental values conflict, some of us experience what I call “moral ambivalence:” in coming to understand the reasons why the other side in a disagreement holds the position it does, I claim, some of us might see a path we might have taken and our confidence in the exclusive correctness of our own position gets shaken. Moral ambivalence appears, I claim, when we look at severe conflicts between the claims of special relationships on our time, resources, and energies, and the claims that strangers can have on us in virtue of their humanity and need. Ambivalence appears, I claim, when we look at moralities that are most focused on the value of relationship and community and moralities that are most focused on individual autonomy. However, it is clear that this appeal to a certain kind of ambivalent experience does not resonate with some critics: they have not had it, and they don’t see why they should have it.

    I am not proposing that Goodwin and Darley’s explanation of differing reactions among laypeople to moral disagreement can be transposed in any simple way to the differing theoretical reactions among philosophers. Presumably, we’re all pretty good at unpacking alternative possibilities while reasoning, at least at some levels of reasoning. Furthermore, a perennial complaint of universalists and moral realists is that relativists are not able to explain moral disagreement because relativists interpret parties to fundamental disagreements to be talking past one another. On the other hand, much philosophical energy seems directed towards showing that the arguments of proponents of rival normative theories are wrong. There is much ingenuity in anticipating and refuting possible argumentative countermoves by one’s opponents, but perhaps not as much persistent effort to attain some sympathetic insight into why the other side might have the normative commitments it has. The general idea that cognitive styles of some kind might partially account for differences between moral philosophers is not an implausible one and worth investigating. The idea that our profession rewards the products of the more pugilistic styles is also worth investigating.

    References

    Goodwin, Geoffrey P. and John M. Darley (2008). “The Psychology of Meta-Ethics: Exploring Objectivism.” Cognition 106: 1339-1366.

    Goodwin, Geoffrey P. and John M. Darley (2009). “The Perceived Objectivity of Ethical Beliefs: Psychological Findings and Implications for Public Policy.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology. Published online October 11, 2009 @ http://springerlink.com/content/121596/?Content+Status=Accepted.

    Wong, David B. (2006). Natural Moralities: A Defense of Pluralistic Relativism (New York: Oxford University Press).

    Wong, David B. (forthcoming). “Individual versus Group Disagreement and Their Implications for Moral Relativism.” Blackwell Companion to Relativism. Ed. Steven Hales.

  • Harold Langsam

    Leiter argues that the fact of intractable philosophical disagreement with respect to foundational moral propositions provides support for moral skepticism. I shall address Leiter’s argument presently, but let me first note that I’m not yet convinced that we should attribute the argument to Nietzsche. (To be fair, Leiter says only that Nietzsche “suggests” this argument.) At the very least, Nietzsche would hold that we do not need such an argument in order to discover the inadequacies in the arguments of moral philosophers. For example, according to Nietzsche we do not need to compare Kant with moral philosophers who intractably disagree with him in order to figure out that his moral philosophy expresses a “stiff and decorous Tartuffery” rather than the “self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic”; we need only be more “honest” in our reading of Kant himself (BGE 5). Similarly, it is “the hocus-pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza clad his philosophy”, not the fact that other philosophers intractably disagree with him, that reveals the “personal timidity and vulnerability” expressed in his philosophy (BGE 5).

    Let’s put Nietzsche aside for the moment and consider the merits of Leiter’s “moral disagreement” argument directly. Leiter’s argument is a specific instance of a more general line of reasoning: intractable disagreement about the nature of a certain kind of fact shows that there are no facts of the kind in question. He acknowledges that not all instances of this general argument schema are legitimate: “the question is always what is the best explanation for the disagreement in question, given its character and scope.” Thus Leiter assumes for the sake of argument an intractable meta-disagreement between the moral skeptic and the moral realist about what to infer from the fact of intractable disagreement among moral realists as to the content of foundational moral propositions. He denies that we should infer from this meta-disagreement that there is no fact of the matter about what we should infer from the original disagreement. On the contrary, he suggests that the moral skeptic can legitimately argue that he is correct and the moral realist is incorrect and there is a good explanation of why the moral realist persists in his incorrect views. I agree that the moral skeptic has a plausible response here. But then why not explore the possibility that participants in the original intractable disagreement about the content of foundational moral propositions have similar responses available to them? Why not explore the possibility that a consequentialist, say, can legitimately argue that he is correct and the Kantians and virtue theorists are incorrect, and here is why Kantians and virtue theorists intractably hold on to their misbegotten views. After all, this kind of argumentation is employed by philosophers all the time. A good philosopher doesn’t merely present arguments for her own views and respond to the arguments of her opponents; she will also attempt to show why the mistaken views of her opponents have appeal; she will attempt to explain why intelligent people might be attracted to such views, even though such views are mistaken. For example, skeptics about knowledge attempt to explain why nonskeptics think that we have knowledge, whereas nonskeptics attempt to explain the appeal of arguments for skepticism.

    So what should we conclude from the intractable disagreements among consequentialists, Kantians, and virtue theorists about the content of foundational moral propositions? Let me suggest that we can gain some perspective on how to approach this question if we keep in mind that the moral theorists in question are not merely disagreeing about the content of foundational moral propositions; they also disagree about how best to explain a fact whose existence should not be in dispute. This undisputed fact is that there is a consensus in certain societies with respect to certain nonfoundational moral issues; this consensus is sometimes referred to as “common sense morality”. Of course there is much moral disagreement in our societies, but there is much agreement, also. Consequentialists, Kantians, and virtue theorists can all be seen as attempting to explain this consensus. Being moral realists, they agree that this consensus should be explained in terms of the idea that members of certain societies have discovered certain moral truths, but they disagree as to the nature of these truths. Given that the existence of the consensus is not in question, we cannot explain away the intractable disagreements among moral realists in terms of the idea that there is no fact here to be explained. But of course it does not follow that one of the moral realist positions is correct. For moral skeptics have their own explanations of this moral consensus. Nietzsche, presumably, would explain it as the triumph of slave morality; in the words of GM I 16, Judea has triumphed over Rome, presumably because Judea is “cleverer” than Rome (GM I 10). Other brands of moral skeptics, such as Freudians and Marxists, would have their own explanations of this consensus.

    So now we have not merely a three-way intractable debate among consequentialists, Kantians, and virtue theorists, but at least a four-way intractable debate among the three kinds of moral realists and the Nietzschean as to how best to explain our moral consensus. How should we react to this intractable debate? We cannot just say that all four positions are mistaken, for we have a fact here that needs to be explained, and presumably there exists some true explanation of this fact. All we can do is allow each side to continue to develop their explanations (what Leiter refers to as the “‘progress’ within traditions”), with the hope that one explanation will emerge as the “best.” The question of what explains our moral consensus is a difficult one, so perhaps we should not be surprised that we have not yet reached agreement on the answer to this question.

    Note that the Nietzschean cannot easily claim an advantage here by attempting to discredit his opponents’ explanations through showing how these explanations reflect the “affects” (BGE 187), or “drives” (BGE 6), or “desire[s] of the heart” (BGE 5) of their proponents. Put aside the issue of whether the moral realists can give similar discrediting explanations of Nietzsche’s views. What is noteworthy here is that for Nietzsche, this kind of psychological explanation of a philosopher’s view does not discredit it. (In BGE 5, Nietzsche does not criticize philosophers for having views that have an origin in the affects; he criticizes them for not “having the courage of the conscience that admits this.”) On the contrary, Nietzsche ranks the philosopher over the “scholar” precisely because in the philosopher, “there is nothing whatever that is impersonal” (BGE 6; see also the “We Scholars” chapter in BGE). Because the philosopher’s views “reflect who he is” (BGE 6), he can employ his views to “create values” (BGE 211), which for Nietzsche is the ultimate exercise of the will to power. Nietzsche’s criticisms of philosophy and philosophers are as extreme as anyone’s, but unlike some critics of philosophy (Rorty, perhaps?), his goal is not to end philosophy, but to make it better; he wants to encourage the emergence of more creative philosophers.

    When there is some fact we want to explain, all we can do is try our best to explain it. If we don’t reach agreement on what the correct explanation is, we just have to try harder. Perhaps some new philosopher will emerge with some new, creative explanation that will secure agreement. But if no agreement is ever reached, so what? No one knew better than Nietzsche that there are things more important than reaching agreement. Let a thousand explanations bloom!

  • THE ARGUMENT FROM RELATIVITY: THE NIETZSCHE/LEITER VERSION

    I agree with Brian Leiter about three things:

    A) Nietzsche was a radical moral skeptic or, as we would nowadays say, an error theorist about ethics (a view he may have derived from Max Stirner).
    B) The error theory is correct. There are no moral facts, or more precisely, no non-negative atomic moral facts, facts constituted by a specific item or person possessing a specific moral property (such as goodness) or standing in a specific moral relation to something else (such as being obliged to bring it about). And the reason for this is that the are no such properties or relations.
    C) Something can be made of the ‘Argument from Relativity’ – that is, the prevalence of moral disagreement affords some support for the error theory.

    However I don’t think that Leiter’s Nietzsche-derived version of the argument will do the trick. Here is Leiter’s argument in a nutshell (let’s call it L/N):

    (1) As of now, there are extremely persistent disagreements between rival moral philosophers giving radically different and incompatible accounts of the moral facts.
    (2) The best explanation of (1) is not an epistemic deficiency on the part of at least some of the rival philosophers – a deficiency which deprives all or most of them of access to the facts – but the thesis that there are no moral facts to disagree about.
    So [probably]
    (3) There are no moral facts to disagree about.

    Now of course, this is not supposed to be a deductive argument. Premises (1) and (2) could be true – at least (1) could be true (2) could be true in the sense that the non-existence of moral facts could apparently be the best explanation of persistent disagreement – and (3) could still be false. (If an explanation is false there is a sense in which it is not really the best explanation though it may be the best as judged by conventional epistemic criteria.) Neither Nietzsche nor Leiter supposes that the persistence of moral disagreement among philosophers and the apparent excellence of the error-theoretic explanation necessitates the non-existence of moral facts. The facts could be lurking about inaccessibly (so to speak) in which case the interminable disputes would be due to the epistemic fact that the moral facts are difficult to access. But the error-theoretic explanation is a better explanation than the rival explanations of the moral realists because none of the rival explanations of the moral realists can convincingly explain why, if the basic moral facts are – and can be known to be – of kind K, they can have been so widely believed to be of kinds X, Y and Z.

    Is L/N a good argument? I think not. For there are parallel arguments with equally plausible premises (or premises which would have been equally plausible when they might have been put forward) leading to patently absurd conclusions. Let’s start with L/N*:

    (1*) As of now, there are extremely persistent disagreements between rival philosophers giving radically different and incompatible accounts of the facts about free will (that is whether determinism or some version of the liberty of indifference is true).
    (2*) The best explanation of (1*) is not an epistemic deficiency on the part of some of the rival philosophers – a deficiency which deprives all or most of them of access to the facts concerning free will – but the thesis that there are no facts about free will to disagree about.
    So [probably]
    (3*) There are no facts of the matter with respect to free will. There is simply no answer to the question of whether determinism or one of its rivals is correct.

    The conclusion I suggest is crazy. How could there be no fact of the matter about whether determinism of one of its rivals is true? I suppose a radical Dummettian or an extreme postmodernist might flirt with such a radically anti-realist line of thought, but that way madness lies. On this issue there just has to be a way the world is. How about this argument (call it L/N**)?

    (1**) As of now [1600] there are extremely persistent disagreements between rival philosophers giving radically different and incompatible accounts of the large scale structure of the universe.
    (2**) The best explanation of (1**) is not an epistemic deficiency on the part of at least some of the rival philosophers – a deficiency which deprives all or most of them of access to the facts – but the thesis that there are no facts about the large scale structure of the universe to disagree about.
    So [probably]
    (3**) There no facts about the large scale structure of the universe to disagree about.

    Here again the conclusion is crazy. And it would have been equally crazy in 1600. How could there be no facts of the matter about the large scale structure of the universe? There has to be a way the world, at large, really is, even if it is forever inaccessible to human enquiry.

    I could multiply examples but you get the point. If parallel arguments from plausible premises lead to crazy conclusions, there has to be something wrong with Leiter’s argument.

    But perhaps I have been cheating. With L/N* and L/N** it is scarcely conceivable that there could be no facts of the right kind. But it is perfectly possible that there might be no moral facts so long as we understand such facts in something like my sense as facts constituted by a specific item or person possessing a specific moral property or standing in a specific moral relation to something else. Thus a better parallel to Leiter’s argumet would be the following (L/Nt):

    (1t) As of now, there are extremely persistent disagreements between rival theologians giving radically different and incompatible accounts of the divine facts (where a divine fact is a fact constituted by an item’s possessing a godhead-conferring property).
    (2t) The best explanation of (1t) is not an epistemic deficiency on the part of at least some of the rival theologians – a deficiency which deprives all or most of them of access to the facts – but the thesis that there are no divine facts to disagree about.
    So [probably]
    (3t) There are no divine facts to disagree about.

    The argument may be dodgy and the conclusion debatable but at least it isn’t crazy or inconceivable. We can deny divine facts without absurdity. This suggests a reply on behalf of Leiter. L/N style arguments are only cogent if it is conceivable that there are no facts of the kind that are denied in the conclusion. But it is quite conceivable that there are no moral facts (construed as non-negative atomic moral facts). Hence my ‘parallel‘ arguments L/N* and L/N** are not really parallel to Leiter’s L/N and thus do not discredit its cogency.

    However, I still think it is a bad argument. Suppose that human beings never make it out of this solar system (a plausible scenario given that our civilization is likely to collapse owing to global warming). And suppose we never discover a method which we know to be reliable for detecting earth-type planets orbiting other stars. Then the following would be an argument with true premises and an obviously silly conclusion (L/Ne):

    (1e) As of now, there are extremely persistent disagreements between rival astronomers giving radically different and incompatible accounts of the other-earth facts (where an other-earth-fact is a fact about the number > 1 of earth-type planets not identical with the earth in the Milky Way).
    (2e) The best explanation of (1e) is not an epistemic deficiency on the part of at least some of the rival astronomers – a deficiency which deprives all or most of them of access to the facts – but the thesis that there are no other-earth facts to disagree about.
    So [probably]
    (3e) There are no other-earth facts to disagree about.

    Here the conclusion is equivalent to the quite conceivable claim that there are no earth-type planets in the Milky Way besides the earth. Thus the argument L/Ne is a genuine parallel to L/N. But though quite conceivable the conclusion of L/Ne is wildly unlikely. Hence L/Ne is not a good argument. And since L/Ne is parallel to L/N, L/N is not a good argument either.

    RELATIVITY REFURBISHED
    Here’s a characteristic pattern in human enquiry: broad agreement with respect to the evident and the observable, disagreement with respect to the theoretical and the occult. Everybody agrees that the sun seems to rise in the East, to proceed across the sky and to set in the West, but there has been an enormous amount of disagreement about the explanation of these evident facts. When this happens we may have reason to be suspicious of any given explanatory theory but we have no reason to deny the existence of any explanatory facts. For the best explanation of the persistent disagreement may simply be that the explanatory facts are difficult to discern. Explaining the evident and the observable is often an extremely challenging task. If the world were transparent to us there would be no need for science. A moral realist might maintain that the situation in ethics is similar to that which existed before science really got going in the seventeenth century. There is a lot of agreement with respect to the ‘appearances’ but a lot of disagreement with respect to the explanation of those appearances. In the course of enquiry the correct explanation (whatever that turns out to be) will eventually win out. Our problem is that the moral sciences have not really gotten into their stride.

    But is this really the way it is in ethics? It seems to me that we have disagreement both with respect to the ‘evident and the observable’ and with respect to the theoretical and the occult. I need not enlarge on the disagreement with respect to the theoretical and the occult since that is the theme of Leiter’s paper. But there is also disagreement with respect to the ‘evident and the observable’. People disagree about the rights and wrongs of slavery and of war, about marital obligations and women’s rights (if any). Lots of people don’t hold it to be self-evident that all men (and women) are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights We should not forget that genocide and state terror (not to mention the terroristic actions of non-state agents) are typically perpetrated by conscientious agents, people who really believe that they are doing the right thing. Slavery without guilt was once the order of the day and it is only relatively recently that we have developed a conscience about such things. Ethnic cleansing is now widely – though not universally – regarded as a Bad Thing though in New World societies most of us are the beneficiaries of acts of ethnic cleansing. Thus there is an enormous amount of disagreement about the observable ‘facts’ to be explained (the appearances to be ‘saved’) as well as about the theoretical explanations. Of course, some of this moral disagreement can be put down to differences as to the non-moral facts on which morality partly supervenes. If you believe in God, then what he wants has implications for ethics. And there is a lot of disagreement about which God exists and what it is that he wants. But there is also a large residue of moral disagreement that cannot be put down to differences as to the non-moral facts.

    Let’s consider a relatively trivial and hence ungruesome case of moral disagreement. G.E. Moore thought it self-evident that ‘self-abuse’ is intrinsically bad. Many of his fellow Apostles thought otherwise. (‘The Apostles’ was the nickname of a secret Cambridge debating society of which Moore, Russell, Lytton Strachey and Keynes were members.) On both sides this was regarded as a matter of immediate perception not the outcome of a theoretical argument. Thus each thought the other had misperceived the moral facts. How was this possible? Well, Moore presumably put down his opponents’ misperceptions to a taste for self-abuse and his opponents presumably put down Moore’s misperceptions to the remnants of an excessively puritanical upbringing. Thus each explained the other’s perceptions without recourse to the moral facts. Moore could explain his opponents’ reactions without appealing to the goodness of self-abuse and his opponents could explain Moore’s reactions without appealing to its badness. And the two sets of explanations seem to be on a par. Moore’s explanations of his opponents ‘perceptions’ seem just as good as his opponents’ explanations of Moore’s.

    This suggests an argument for the error theory which combines moral ‘relativity’ with ‘explanatory impotence’.

    1) There is a great deal of moral disagreement at the level of alleged ‘perceptions’.
    2) Hence many moral ‘perceptions’ can be explained without recourse to corresponding moral facts (since everyone agrees with respect to some moral ‘perceptions’ that there are no corresponding moral facts).
    3) But ‘true‘ moral ‘perceptions’ can be explained without recourse to the moral facts in much the same way as ‘false‘ ones.
    4) Thus moral ‘perceptions’ generally can be explained without recourse to corresponding moral facts.
    5) The only good reason for positing moral facts would be to explain our moral ‘perceptions’.
    6) Thus there is no good reason to posit moral facts.
    7) If there is no good reason to posit facts of a certain kind, then probably there are no such facts.
    8 ) So probably there are no moral facts.

    I don’t pretend this argument is decisive. But it seems to me a lot better than Leiter’s.

  • I’ve seen some puzzling responses to Brian Leiter’s argument. In particular, those by Charles Pigden and Michael Ridge. It appears to me that these responses take Leiter to argue that there “is no fact of the matter” as to who is right (realist or anti-realist), but Leiter sides with anti-realism. He does think there is a fact concerning morality — There is no right or wrong at all.

    Here are the relevant passages by Leiter:

    That still leaves a slightly different version of the worry that the argument “proves too much.” For surely most philosophers will not conclude from the fact of disagreement among moral philosophers about the fundamental criteria of moral rightness and goodness that there is no fact of the matter about these questions, as I claim Nietzsche does.  But why not think that this meta-disagreement itself warrants a skeptical inference, i.e., there is no fact about whether we should infer moral skepticism from the fact of disagreement about fundamental principles among moral philosophers, since philosophers have intractable disagreements about what inferences the fact of disagreement supports?

    Even if, after extended critical discussion, the meta-disagreement continues to persist, that still would not support the meta-skeptical conclusion that there is no fact of the matter about whether or not disagreement in foundational moral theory supports skepticism about moral facts.

    Leiter makes it clear that he does think there is a true position concerning meta-ethics. Anti-realism is true.

    Harold Langsam confirms this reading of Leiter:

    He denies that we should infer from this meta-disagreement that there is no fact of the matter about what we should infer from the original disagreement. On the contrary, he suggests that the moral skeptic can legitimately argue that he is correct and the moral realist is incorrect and there is a good explanation of why the moral realist persists in his incorrect views.

    Here are the passages by Charles Pigden and Michael Ridge that I find confusing or mistaken:

    Charles Pigden:

    The conclusion I suggest is crazy. How could there be no fact of the matter about whether determinism of one of its rivals is true? I suppose a radical Dummettian or an extreme postmodernist might flirt with such a radically anti-realist line of thought, but that way madness lies. On this issue there just has to be a way the world is. How about this argument (call it L/N**)?

    This argument does not seem analogous. If anything, an analogous argument should be — Philosophers have always disagreed about foundational questions concerning free will, so we probably don’t have free will. An anti-realist position concerning free will should be supported by the argument.

    Michael Ridge:

    Even in those cases in which Leiter’s hypothesis has some plausibility, it seems a bit much to jump from that hypothesis – that the debate is driven by the moral agendas of the partisans – to the conclusion that there is no fact of the matter as to who is right in the debate in question. Suppose that the debate over mind/body dualism is driven by the moral agendas of the partisans. Should we infer from this that there is no fact of the matter as to whether mind/body dualism is true? Again, this seems highly implausible.

    Yes, there is a fact of the matter about whether mind/body dualism is true. Leiter would probably want to side with anti-realism about mind-body dualism and say it’s probably false.

  • Don Loeb

    Pigden and Ridge can certainly speak for themselves, but neither reads Leiter as claiming that there is no fact about whether moral realism is right or wrong. Both correctly identify him as defending moral anti-realism.

    The tricky part is the analogy, which is obscured a bit by Gray’s statement, “He does think there is a fact concerning morality — There is no right or wrong at all.”

    What is a “fact concerning morality”?

    The phrase could refer to a moral fact—like that killing people for fun is wrong or that utilitarianism is (in)correct.

    Or it could refer to a metaethical fact—like the fact that moral realism is wrong (or right) or that Brian’s argument against moral realism succeeds (or does not succeed).

    The distinction is crucial. Leiter argues from there being persistent disagreement about how to answer a question to there being no answer to the question. Specifically, he argues from persistent disagreement among philosophers over substantive moral questions to the metaethical claim that there are no moral facts–moral anti-realism. Call this, “Leiter’s inference”.

    Analogously, one might try to reason from persistent disagreement among philosophers over whether or not there is free will to there being no fact about whether or not there is free will. Likewise, one might reason from persistent disagreement among philosophers over the whether or not moral realism is true to there being no fact about whether or not moral realism is true.

    But the conclusions of these analogous arguments are implausible, say the critics, and so we should resist Leiter’s inference (from disagreement about what the moral facts are to the claim that there are no moral facts) as well.

    Indeed, they claim, Leiter’s argument is self-defeating, since we could as well argue from disagreement among philosophers about the correctness of Leiter’s inference to there being no fact about whether Leiter’s inference is correct.

    Leiter responds that we need to look in each case for the best explanation for persistent disagreement. The best explanation for persistent disagreement (among philosophers) about substantive moral questions, he thinks, is that these questions do not have correct answers.

    In the case of disagreement about the correctness of Leiter’s inference, however, Leiter thinks that the disagreement is too new to count as persistent. Thus, he suggests, the best explanation for that disagreement does not suggest that there is no fact about whether Leiter’s inference is correct.

    In other cases, where disagreement about certain philosophical questions does appear to be persistent and irresolvable, the skeptical conclusion that these philosophical questions have no answers might well be correct, he says.

  • Brian Leiter

    Reply to Comments, Part I

    Brian Leiter
    University of Chicago

    I am grateful for the overwhelming response to my essay, and to the multitude of interesting, illuminating and often important objections and observations offered by the nearly thirty readers who took the time to comment, often at length. I want to especially thank “On the Human” for making a forum like this possible—I am sure I never would have gotten so much valuable feedback from so many philosophers and scholars had it not been for this opportunity.

    Since my essay of three pages generated over thirty pages of comments and discussion, I hope I will be forgiven for not responding to every issue raised. Don Loeb, in his comments, make many of the points I think are relevant, so I commend those to readers. Herewith my first set of replies to an excellent set of critics; the second set of replies will follow next week.

    Reply to Wedgwood: Wedgwood grants that “moral philosophers disagree about foundational moral questions,” but denies that they disagree about “more concrete moral issues,” such as: “we are normally obliged to keep our promises, to refrain from telling lies and killing or torturing people, and to help those who are in need.” I, of course, conceded that moral philosophers often do agree about concrete cases, but what kind of agreement is this really? Importantly, Wedgwood has to preface each of these concrete moral propositions by saying this is what we “are normally obliged to” do, meaning, of course, that he recognizes that each moral precept has exceptions—and as soon as we press on the exceptions, we start to find the real disagreements about the foundational moral questions. I suppose no one would think that Mussolini and Roosevelt really converge on the same moral truths just because they both agree about the concrete question that normally the trains should run on time. Moral philosophers—at least the conventional kind who subscribe to the propositions in question—are surely less far apart than Mussolini and Roosevelt, but that doesn’t alter the fact that their apparent agreement on suitably general and hedged “concrete” moral propositions belies real disagreements, which come out as soon as we press on the concrete cases.

    But Wedgwood also wonders whether the foundational moral disagreements are real. He suggests that most moral philosophers may not be “really convinced of the precise moral theories that they defend.” Perhaps this is right, but there is no evidence of this in the writings of most moral philosophers (with the exception, ironically, of Nietzsche).Wedgwood’s speculative hypothesis seems more wishful, than factual, but maybe he has evidence in mind of which I am unaware.

    Wedgwood also raises doubts about whether intractable disagreement supports an inference of anti-realism about the subject of the disagreement. I would plead guilty to the charge of “Whiggishness” if it were my thesis that “sufficiently intelligent and conscientious inquirers” (to quote Wedgwood) will always discover the facts. But that is not my thesis. My thesis is that failure of convergence demands explanation, and sometimes that explanation will invoke the non-factual character of the disagreement—but other times it will be the absence of pertinent evidence, or the irremediable cognitive deficit of one of the parties to the disagreement, and so on. In the case of the debates among historians that Wedgwood fairly notes, surely an important part of the explanation for their persistent disagreements have to do with evidential problems, both what would count as decisive evidence for one proposition or another, and also our access to pertinent evidence. In the case of debates about the truth of string theory, the lack of pertinent evidence is the central problem, I thought, due to lack of equipment to test the predictions of the theory. Perhaps I have been misled by Steven Weinberg’s work!

    Wedgwood concludes by suggesting the self-defeating character of my argument is much worse than I concede. Wedgwood thinks that careful philosophical attention to the metaphysical import of intractable disagreement has a longer history than I do. Here I take some comfort from having Paul Bloomfield, another moral realist, on my side—he notes: “I don’t recall reading any discussions about moral disagreement so precise and technical from the distant past.” Wedgwood is right to identify a debate on this issue in antiquity, and perhaps the spirited exchange here will propel the question to philosophical center stage, such that in ten or twenty or thirty years we will have a clearer handle on whether the disagreement is intractable and, if so, why. But I still think it is too soon to draw any inferences from the state of philosophical play at present.

    Reply to Katsafanas: Katsafanas’s reconstruction of the argument usefully illuminates a point on which my original presentation no doubt created some confusion. As he puts it, the datum for which I purportedly demand an explanation is that: “ (1) there exist incompatible X theories providing dialectical justifications for incompatible X propositions.” Katsafanas agrees that it could be true that one can construct “ (2) apparent dialectical justifications for incompatible X theories” in terms of “(3) the agent’s psychological needs” to accept “a particular X theory,” but he denies this shows that there would be “no objective facts about X propositions.” He gives some nice examples—involving economic disputes—to illustrate the points, and concludes that “it is hard to see why (2) and (3) have any bearing on whether there are objectives facts about the topic in question.”

    I agree that moral skepticism would not follow from (2) and (3), but that was not my argument. Michael Ridge (who has his own objections) gives a cleaner statement as follows: “(1) There has been no convergence on any substantive, foundational proposition about morality under what appear (and purported) to be epistemically ideal conditions of sustained philosophical inquiry and reflective contemplation across millennia; (2) The best explanation for such a failure in convergence…is that there are no objective moral truths; (3) Therefore, there are no objective moral truths.” I shall return, below, to Ridge’s different objections to this argument, but I believe he correctly capture the dialectical structure of the inference to the best explanation argument at issue (as does Loeb). Katsafanas, I think, misconstrues the explanandum: it is not that there exist incompatible X theories, but that there is no convergence in opinion among epistemically well-situated disputants about which X theory is true. It is that fact which demands explanation, and the proposal on offer is that there is no moral truth for an X theory to discover, which then facilitates the construction of “apparent dialectical justifications” for different theories.

    The case of theological rationalizations for the existence of God is not, contrary to Katsfanas, an analogous case. It is not true that the non-existence of God “remains undetected by a large number of people who are otherwise rational and epistemically informed.” In fact, the overwhelming tendency of post-Enlightenment intellectuals for the last two hundred years is towards atheism, and the odd exceptions (e.g., certain Protestant American philosophers) admit of obvious, often embarrassingly obvious, explanations that are compatible with the non-existence of a deity.

    Reply to Young: Young invokes what he takes to be obviously true concrete moral judgments to resist the anti-realist conclusion. His examples are like Wedgwood’s, and also Bloomfield’s (discussed below), and I will not repeat here what I say in reply to those philosophers. Young also suggests that to infer moral skepticism from intractable disagreement among moral philosophers “would be as fallacious as arguing from the fact that sometimes we can’t decide whether a man is bald or hairy to the conclusion that there is never a ‘fact’ of the matter as to whether someone is bald or hairy.” But Young’s analogy is confused. The actually analogous argument would not be about whether there are any facts about when any individual is bald or hairy, but about whether there is a fact about the baldness of some particular person, the one whose “baldness” or “hairiness” is in dispute. As I am sure Young knows, metaphysical skepticism about whether there is a fact of the matter about the application of a vague predicate in some instance is (in fact!) one of the positions widely defended about cases like this.

    Reply to Knobe: Knobe does not dispute the argument on offer, but offers the possibility that “whatever methods moral philosophers have been using, these methods do not in any way help; people to converge on” the moral facts. I fully agree that this conclusion is compatible with my argument, and that one upshot of the argument (if one accepts it) is that the dialectical methods of moral philosophers are not the way to secure convergence in judgment.

    Reply to Gowder: Like Cholbi, Gowder is sympathetic to a different explanation for intractable disagreement among moral philosophers: namely (to put this in my terms) that it reflects a kind of cognitive or epistemic defect—in Gowder’s terms, “the corruption of our capacity to make moral judgments.” What are the corrupting influences? Gowder suggests corruption of moral judgment by “self-interest, ideology (in the Marxist sense), by indoctrination and socialization, and most generally, by motivated cognition appearing in a multitude of forms.” I am sympathetic to the thought that moral philosophers are, in fact, subject to these influences, but it is not obvious that they will suffice to explain why bourgeois utilitarian moral philosophers like Parfit can’t agree with bourgeois Kantian moral philosophers like Korsgaard. We would need a more fine-grained explanatory story showing how these ‘corrupting’ influences affect the actual disagreements we find. And we would also need some reason for thinking that minus these corrupting influences, philosophers would converge on the moral facts.

    Reply to Harman: Harman fairly asks for clarification about what is meant by “foundational propositions” about morality. I took foundational moral propositions to be those advanced by, e.g., deontological or utilitarian theories which specify the criteria in virtue of which “concrete” moral judgments are warranted: so, e.g., “it is wrong to break this promise” is a concrete moral judgment, while “the wrong-making feature of an action is its effect on utility” is a foundational proposition. In the sciences, “foundational” propositions would be, e.g., laws of nature in virtue of which particular true predictions are made. “Instrumentalist” versus “realist” interpretations of physics (per Harman’s example) would not be an example of disagreement about foundational propositions, whereas disagreement about whether the laws of Newtonian mechanics correctly describe the motion of mid-size physical objects would be (but there is no disagreement about the latter).

    I claimed that “the disagreements of moral philosophers are amazingly intractable. Nowhere do we find lifelong Kantians suddenly…converting to Benthamite utilitarianism, or vice versa.” I do not see Harman’s purported counter-examples as probative. Utilitarianism and libertarianism (the Narveson example) are not opposite moral doctrines, but perhaps there are details of Narveon’s moral theory of libertarianism I am missing. Nor are Benthamite and Millian utilitarianism; if that is the most “dramatic” conversion story on offer, it seems to me to confirm the original hypothesis. Moral vegetarianism seems to me less clearly a foundational moral judgment, as opposed to a concrete or applied one. There is some evidence that philosophers, especially some utilitarians, have become vegetarians because of the force of utilitarian arguments, but it was not any part of my claim here to deny that foundational moral principles might influence concrete judgments. (As a side note, it is interesting that even Peter Singer has conceded that the real impact of Animal Liberation came from the description of factory farming, not the arguments he (and others) have given for vegetarianism. That the foundational utilitarian arguments have had little or no impact—as distinct from the ability of vivid descriptions of factor farming practices to arouse emotional responses that change behavior—should be clear from the fact that the same foundational premises lead to Singer’s notorious views about the permissibility of killing the severely disabled, views which have found almost no acceptance, even among the very same people who consider themselves ‘moral’ vegetarians.)

    Reply to Berry: Berry suggests that it is more fruitful to think of Nietzsche as a “skeptic” in the Pyrrhonian sense, as someone who suspends judgment, rather than as someone affirmating an anti-realist metaphysical thesis. Her argument here is developed at greater length in her forthcoming book on Nietzsche and Ancient Skepticism (Oxford University Press, 2010), and so a full adjudication of its merits will have to await that book’s appearance. I will note that the textual burden for Berry’s view is heavy, considering Nietzsche’s penchant for strong statements (e.g., “there are altogether no moral facts” or “Christianity has not a single point of contact with reality”), which do not look like suspensions of judgment at all. She makes an intriguing case for the Pyrrhonian reading of one of the Nachlass passages on which I rely, though I am not convinced by her claim that the Sophists did not have philosophical views about, e.g., the objectivity of ethics. Plato certainly thought they did, and argued against them. The Sophistic way of opposing Platonism involves precisely a dispute about the objectivity of value, in a way the Pyrrhonian response does not.

    Reply to Ridge: I have already availed myself (in the reply to Katsafanas) of Ridge’s crisp statement of the core skeptical argument. Ridge seizes upon my formulation of the position in the original posting in terms of there being “no objective moral truths,” and correctly notes that quasi-realists, given that their view that “truth is a mere grammatical device,” can both explain moral disagreements and retain the idea that there are moral truths. Truth is obviously a semantic notion, and my unqualified use of it in the original posting invites Ridge’s objection. But I did use “truth” interchangeably with “facts” for a reason (one that is clearer in the longer unpublished essay on which this is based): namely, that the skeptical thesis I am abscribing to Nietzsche is a metaphysical one (about what exists) not a semantic one. As a general matter, I do worry that the semantic tail too often wags the metaphysical dog in metaethical disputes, but whether or not that is right, it is clearly anachronistic to think Nietzsche has a view about the subtle semantic issues at stake between cognitivists and non-cognitivists, between emotivisits and quasi-realists, and so on. What matters for purposes of my argument is that the quasi-realist stands with Nietzsche (and Mackie and Gibbard and Stevenson) on the metaphysical question, i.e., that there are no moral facts.

    Dancy’s particuralism raises a different kind of challenge, as Ridge interestingly notes. For the particuralist has no difficulty with the phenomenon of intractable disagreement among moral philosophers about foundational moral principles, since he is, like Nietzsche, a skeptic about the existence of the latter! Moral reality, however, is supposedly captured in the particularist and context-sensitive judgments, and so is untouched by the Nietzschean argument. That seems right, as far as it goes. But appeal to particular and context-sensitive moral judgments runs afoul of the more familiar anti-realist arguments that appeal to “folk” disagreement and disagreements between cultures. It may be, as Ridge says, that particularism “cannot reasonably be dismissed out of hand”—which positions can be, I wonder?—but absent a particularist explanation for the diversity of particular moral judgments, it is hard to see it being much help in resisting an argument from disagreement.

    Ridge, playing devil’s advocate (since this is not really his view), borrows a page from Parfittian optimism, claiming that “until the twentieth century, avowing a purely secular moral theory was hazardous to your health.” The suggestion is that, therefore, we need to wait longer for the promised progress in moral theory. This is a common, though, curious refrain, and for three reasons. First, most fields with factual subject matters have usually managed to make progress, as measured by convergence among researchers, over the course of a century—and especially the last century, with the rise of research universities. Moral theory is, again, the odd man out, when compared to physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics. Even psychology, the most epistemically robust of the ‘human’ sciences, managed to make progress: e.g., the repudiation of behaviorism, and the cognitive turn in psychology in just the last fifty years. Second, Spinzoa and Hume and Mill and Sedgwick may not have advertised their secularism, but the idea that their moral theories are for that reason discontinuous with the work of the past hundred years does obvious intellectual violence to the chains of influence of ideas and arguments. Third, and relatedly, so-called “secular” moral theory regularly conceives itself in relation to a history that stretches back in time (some times back to the Greeks), so that it becomes unclear why the bogeyman of the deity was supposed to have constituted the insuperable obstacle weighing down intellectual progress. Most contemporary deontologists may be atheists, but it isn’t obvious that their atheism enabled them to make stunning intellectual progress beyond Kant. (I also do not doubt that Parfit thinks all moral philosophers are converging on his view, as Ridge notes, but to call his claim “controversial” is, I would think, a significant understatement. )

    Ridge is skeptical about whether all metaphysical and epistemological views can be traced to moral commitments of their proponents. In fairness to Nietzsche, I should note that his thesis applied to “great philosophies”—like Kant and Spinoza—and not to those “philosophical laborers” and “scholars” who possess “some small, independent clockwork that, once well wound, works on vigorously without any essential participation from all the other drives of the scholar” (Beyond Good and Evil, 6). Many professional philosophers may, indeed, be laboring away at problems in a “disinterested” way. Still, as the recent Chalmers survey of philosophers brought out, there are striking, and surely not accidental, correlations between philosophical views across different areas: e.g., theism and moral realism and libertarianism about free will. Even the “philosophical laborers” are not wholly disinterested inquirers!

    Finally, Ridge makes the fair point that anti-realism about morality “need not imply the abandonment of serious first-order inquiry.” Ridge no doubt correctly describes the view of many moral anti-realists, but it is an important, and separate, question, whether they are right to be so confident. Ayer and Stevenson both thought, of course, that there was lots of “serious first-order inquiry” to be done about non-moral facts and logic, inquiry which might influence our moral attitudes. But have we really established that Ayer was wrong “that argument is possible on moral questions only if some system of values is presupposed”? As Ayer observes: “It is because [rational] argument fails us when we come to deal with pure questions of value, a distinct from questions of fact, that we finally resort to mere abuse.” That certainly seems to me an apt description of the state of foundational disagreements between Kantians and utilitarians.

    Reply to Suikkanen: I am grateful to Suikkanen for posing the question of how the metaethical view defended here squares with my expression of moral and political opinions on my blog. Again, following Ayer and Stevenson, it is important to distinguish between genuine moral disagreements, and disagreements about non-moral facts. Especially in the reactionary and cognitive impaired political culture of the United States, many political disagreements really trade on ignorance of, or indifference to, non-moral facts. So, to mention Suikkanen’s example, most disagreement about the teaching of intelligent design trades on non-moral ignorance about the evidence for natural selection and its ability to explain complex organic phenomena. If someone agreed with me that “Intelligent Design” were simply creationism for those who had consulted a lawyer and a public relations consultant, but still thought it should be taught in the public schools, then our disagreement would be a “purely” moral or evaluative one. I do not know what rational considerations could adjudicate that dispute. But my “pure” evaluative commitments (to borrow Ayer’s phrase) are none the worse for being mine—indeed, I’m rather attached to them!

    Reply to Bloomfield: Like some other commenters, Boomfield would locate the evidence for moral realism in “our engaged moral experiences.” That, of course, invites the skeptical rejoinder that people’s moral experiences differ quite a bit (at least prima facie), and that the experiences in question have dubious epistemic credentials (think of “engaged religious experiences,” which are no doubt also vivid to those who have them). Bloomfield, however, borrowing from Sharon Street, adduces examples of moral facts on which there is purportedly convergence—such as “The fact that something would promote the interests of a family member is a reason to do it” and “The fact that someone is altruistic is a reason to admire, praise, and reward him or her”—and suggests that the fact that “moral philosophers cannot agree on a justification for how they base their judgments and actions on these facts is an embarrassment to moral philosophy, but not to morality itself.” As I noted above, in reply to Wedgwood, this apparent convergence is only apparent, since the moral ‘truths’ in question are either reasonably disputed (La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche reject the second one!), or need to be severely qualified (it is isn’t a reason to hide an escaped prisoner just because he is your brother, is it?) in ways that will implicate broader principles, precisely the terrain on which moral philosophy operates. Again, apparent agreement on concrete moral judgments can easily belie disagreement on foundational moral principles.

    Like Harman, Bloomfield invokes disagreements about the correct metaphysical interpretation of science, though rightly concedes that “even if the philosophy of science is problematic this doesn’t imply that science itself has any worries.” (I note in passing that the right analogy to this point would not be, as Bloomfield suggests, how moral philosophy stands to ordinary morality, but how meta-ethics stands to ordinary morality.) He goes on to claim that “there is little agreement on the fundamental issues of science,” but the examples he gives, in fact, seem to involve metaphysical disputes about science, not debates internal to scientific practice. Perhaps the point trades on the ambiguity about “foundational” to which Harman called attention, and on which I remarked in reply to him.

    Is Nietzsche a “moral philosopher” like those at whom he “hurls…insults” as Bloomfield amusingly observes at the end of his comments? I think the answer is actually ‘no,’ for two reasons: (1) he does not present his basic ethical views as having any rational warrant—he is self-conscious about their lack of objective standing; and (2) he does not suppose that rational arguments could change anyone’s ethical views. In the spirit of Ayer, however, he is rather good at “abuse” and polemics, precisely because those rhetorical devices are far more likely to have an impact on the emotive and non-rational foundations of our moral convictions.

  • Brian Leiter

    Reply to Critics Part II
    Brian Leiter
    University of Chicago

    I do apologize for not being able to address everyone, and every theme, and I renew my thanks to all the commenters for their careful attention to the ideas and arguments I presented; even where I dispute the analysis, I have learned from the criticisms.

    Reply to Kail: As befits a distinguished Hume scholar with (appropriate!) Nietzschean sympathies, Kail gives, in his first paragraph, an excellent summary of the position I was trying to defend, and states the central Nietzschean thesis well:  “The activity of the moral philosopher…is not a disinterested attempt to arrive at moral truth but a post-hoc rationalization of a general evaluative stance” arrived at because it is responsive to various psychological needs.  Kail then raises three issues.

    First, he fairly asks what sense of objectivity is at stake in the argument for moral skepticism.  It is certainly not Mackie’s, which I agree is idiosyncratic.  The skeptic (or non-factualist, to borrow Loeb’s terminology) at issue here claims that there are no objective moral facts in the precise sense that there is no fact of the matter about what is morally right and wrong independent of the cognizing states of persons, even under idealized conditions of cognition.   Kantian constructivists and sensibility theorists will have quarrels with this, but let me assert, dogmatically and without argument (at least in this forum), that this skepticism about objectivity, if successful, reaches both the constructivists (who need a metaphysical view, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding) and the sensibility theorists (whose view, even if correct, is tantamount to conceding that morality is not objective).  (I make the latter case in “Objectivity, Morality, and Adjudication,” reprinted in my Naturalizing Jurisprudence [OUP, 2007].)

    Second, Kail articulates a concern raised by others (including Cholbi, Gowder, Zangwill and Donnelly), namely that “philosophical disagreement [might be laid] down to a distortion of moral phenomena that owes itself to the bias of philosophers.”  Nothing in the argument I have given rules that out, but this line of argument would require, first, abandoning the Parfitian optimism so characteristic of modern moral philosophy, and, second, some account of why it is philosophical methods of rational discursiveness are ill-suited to discerning the facts about morality.

    Third, Kail correctly notes that the answer to the question what is the best explanation of intractable disagreement among moral philosophers is not one to be settled a priori, and will require more empirical, psychological details than I have offered so far.  We have a lot of empirical evidence about the sources of moral judgment—from Freud to Haidt—and it overwhelmingly fits the Nietzschean story.  But that story needs to be written in detail to be persuasive, as Kail rightly demands.

    Reply to Clark & Dudrick: Clark & Dudrick deny that Nietzsche really argues from the fact of moral disagreement among moral philosophers to moral skepticism.  To be sure, they agree that Nietzsche rejects the arguments of moral philosophers, but this is “because their arguments fail.”  Why do they fail?  Clark & Dudrick, oddly, never say. To be clear, I think Nietzsche has other arguments for moral skepticism, besides the argument from moral disagreement:  for example, as I argued in Nietzsche on Morality [2002], Nietzsche holds the now familiar view that objective moral facts would not figure in the best explanation of our moral judgments.   But I do not see that Nietzsche actually directly engages the arguments of the major moral philosophers, and shows them to be dialectically unsound, and Clark & Dudrick adduce no contrary evidence.  But if Nietzsche has explanatory arguments for moral skepticism—including the argument from disagreement among moral philosophers—then we can see why he wouldn’t need to engage the details of, e.g., Kant’s argument for the categorical imperative.

    Against the textual evidence I cite in support of my interpretation of Nietzsche’s position, Clark & Dudrick offer what we might call the ‘Argument from Semi-Colons’:  the fact that Nietzsche starts by appealing to the Sophistic “insight” that every morality can be “dialectically justified” and concludes that “it is a swindle to talk of ‘truth’ in this field”  does not support my reading because the various propositions are “separated by semi-colons”, which “opens the possibility that the claims of these clauses are simply a list of the things Nietzsche takes the Sophists to have claimed.  We need not think that Nietzsche any one of these claims as evidence for any other.”  Depending on one’s view of semi-colons, I suppose that is a possibility.  But to take it seriously, it would help to identify the actual argument for the skeptical conclusion, which Clark & Dudrick do not do.

    Reply to Zangwill: Zangwill asserts that “Nietzsche consistently believed in objective orders of rank among human beings,” though he cites no texts in support.   The only supporting texts I can think of come from unpublished notes, and involve arguments so bad (as I discussed in “Nietzsche’s Metaethics:  Against the Privilege Readings,”European Journal of Philosophy [2000]), that one may hope Nietzsche recognized the position was not sound, or even consistent with his views about the objectivity of value in the books he published, and so left these thought experiments in his notebooks.   It is clear that Nietzsche has a higher opinion of Goethe, Napoleon, and Beethoven, than of the rabble and the herd, but much more is needed to show he thinks that judgments about value has any objective standing.  (I discuss these cases in some detail in Nietzsche on Morality [2002], esp. at 149-155.)

    More interestingly, to my mind, Zangwill presses the important question (noted, in various ways, by several others) about “[w]hy…the academic philosopher’s position [is] somehow epistemologically privileged?”  As he notes, surely it “is not implausible that what is known as the ‘the ivory tower’ is a bad place for thinking about moral questions.”  Loeb’s comments bring out nicely why disagreement among moral philosophers is a particular embarrassment for moral realists, and I will not repeat what he says here.  I will only add that outside the ‘ivory tower,’ moral disagreement multiplies, and in some ways becomes more extreme, than it does within.  If the argumentative strategy of appeal to disagreement is sound, then going outside the disagreement among moral philosophers does not help the case of the moral realists.

    Reply to Carson: Carson raises a number of pertinent issues, that I have dealt with in reply to others, so I will not rehash those matters here.  But he articulates an especially perspicuous version of another way in which my argument might be self-defeating (Donnelly also picks up on this). As Carson puts it:  “the existence of extensive disagreement about metaethical questions, including the question of whether there are objective moral truths, creates very serious problems for Leiter.  The logic of his view seems to commit him to saying that there are no objective truths about controversial metaethical questions and that there are no objective (metaethical) facts about whether or not there are objective moral facts.”   Here I will invoke something Loeb notes:  “We have to look at the total explanatory picture.”  The question is always what is the best explanation for intractable disagreement.  In the case of intractable metaethical disagreement, at least part of the explanation may be that those who are especially sanctimonious feel that their moral attitudes must have objective standing, and so they will not give up their metaethical realism no matter what.   In this respect, I suspect moral realists are a bit like smart philosophical deists, who can deploy a vast dialectical armory in support of their preferred metaphysics.  But this is speculative, and I concede I have not made the case, and Carson’s kind of self-defeatingness looms over the argument.

    Reply to O’Brien: O’Brien rightly calls attention to the fact that philosophers like Anscombe and MacIntyre have endorsed, or noticed, similar facts about the intractability of disagreement among modern moral philosophers.  I am skeptical the story would become more hopeful if we included the pre-modern moral philosophers in the mix—the disagreement, both in breadth and depth, would only grow worse.  And I suspect the skeptical case would be even easier to make given that the pre-modern moral philosophers, and their nostalgic contemporary defenders like Anscombe and MacIntyre, rely on theistic and metaphysical suppositions that are discredited on independent grounds.

    Reply to Donnelly: I have dealt with part of Donnelly’s objection in reply to Carson.  Donnelly correctly sees that I am committed only to the thesis of “moral anti-realism:  it is not the case that there are any moral facts.”  He wonders whether this is compatible with the view, defended by Pigden, among others, that Nietzsche is an error theorist.  I do not think Nietzsche is an error theorist, or a fictionalist, or a non-cognitivist, because I do not think he has any considered view about the semantics of moral expressions—indeed, it would be astounding if he did.  My critical discussion of Hussain’s fictionalist reading (which also requires that Nietzsche be a cognitivist about moral judgments) gives some indication of why I am an agnostic about Nietzsche’s moral semantics.

    Reply to Loeb: I have no reply to Loeb, since everything he says strikes me as right and instructive.  I would encourage the critics of the argument at issue here to read Loeb’s comments with care.

    Reply to Wong: Wong’s interesting response draws on his own development of a sophisticated form of moral relativism, which I can not hope to address adequately here.  I concur with Wong that differences in “cognitive styles…might partially account for differences between moral philosophers,” but I think, to the extent it plays an explanatory role, it will license the moral skepticism I take Nietzsche to be defending.

    Reply to Langsam: Langsam, like Clark & Dudrick, suggests that Nietzsche does not need to appeal to the fact of intractable disagreement among moral philosophers “to discover the inadequacies in the arguments of moral philosophers.”  But his textual evidence, which overlaps with mine, only states Nietzsche’s conclusions about the inadequacies not the argument for why they are inadequate.

    Langsam, echoing some earlier commenters, suggests that it is an “undisputed fact…that there is a consensus in certain societies with respect to certain nonfoundational moral issues,” and he adds that this “common sense morality” itself requires explanation.  He admits that “there is much moral disagreement in our societies, but there is much agreement, also.”  Given that caveat—that there is both disagreement and agreement—then I quite agree that there is an explanatory burden with respect to the latter as well as the former.  Of course, Nietzche’s explanation for the agreement is also not one that vindicates its factual status.  If the appeal of ascetic moralities is explicable in terms of their ability to seduce back to life those who suffer, that hardly shows moral judgments to be reliable trackers of moral reality.

    Langsam also observes that Nietzsche’s “kind of psychological explanation of a philosopher’s view does not discredit it.”  Everything turns on what is meant by “discredit.”  Certainly Nietzsche thinks, as Langsam notes, that genuine philosophers are affectively engaged partisans, a role that philosophers usually disown.  So insofar as Nietzsche correctly diagnoses their real motives, he discredits their views by the very standards philosophers accept.  More importantly, the best explanation of the views of the philosophers discredits their objective standing.  Nietzsche, of course, thinks philosophical views are none the worse for that, but that is hardly a view the targets of his criticsm subscribe to.

    I can not resist concluding by noting that no one gives a more delightful and evocative reading of Nietzsche than Harold Langsam, so if you have the opportunity, ask for a recital!

    Reply to Pigden: I hesitate about using the label “error theory” for Nietzsche’s view, for reasons already noted in response to Donnelly.   But with that caveat, I am otherwise comfortable with Pigden’s restatement of the core argument.  Unfortunately, it seems to me that in his other examples, Pigden does not take seriously enough the requirement of his premise (2), namely, that the “best explanation” of the intractable disagreement includes the absence of any fact of the matter about which the parties are disagreeing.  Pigden deems it “crazy” and “patently absurd” to think there is no fact of the matter about free will, but we first need to settle what the best explanation for the persistence of debates about free will really is; Pigden does not even consider the question.  I have no quarrel with Pigden’s alternate argument for moral skepticism, though appeal to moral “perceptions” does open the door to the standard defusing explanations of disagreement in a way that appeal to disagreement among moral philosophers does not (again, videLoeb on this point).