first post actually on philosophy

With that throat-clearing out of the way, I figured I should actually write something about philosophy, which is after all the ostensible topic of this blog.  Let’s start with a seemingly autobiographical question: Why would anyone work on both Nietzsche and empirically informed ethics?

It’s a fair question.  After all, it would be odd to think of Nietzsche as an empirically informed ethicist.  Though he did sometimes have nice things to say about science, mostly he had in mind his own field of philology, and it’s far from clear that even his supposedly historical works (e.g. The Genealogy of Morals) are truly empirically informed.  Much of the second essay of the Genealogy is about prehistory, so that’s purely speculative, if not mythological.  The third essay is more of a rumination on the ascetic ideal than an empirically informed investigation.  That leaves the first essay, which could be construed as a historical account of the origins of Christianity, but as history it’s pretty thin.  At the very least, Nietzsche’s works are nothing like those of Richard Brandt, John Doris, Jesse Prinz, and Chandra Sripada.

So then why the attraction?  What makes Nietzsche more interesting to an empirically informed moral psychologist than, say, Spinoza, or even Kant?  A few things:

  1. Nietzsche, though he never ran a controlled experiment, was an extremely astute observer of human thought, feeling, and behavior.
  2. Nietzsche possessed a humbling understanding of classical texts from the Latin and Greek traditions, but also was familiar with texts from the Indian subcontinent; this familiarity made available ways of thought and feeling that most of us culture-bound 21st-century folks find hard to fathom.
  3. Nietzsche was a committed atheist, and so resisted the kinds of bullshit explanations that all too easily occur and appeal to both agnostics and theists.
  4. Nietzsche seems to have been pathologically sensitive to the role that affect and emotion play in moral psychology.

On 1., the point is that it’s possible to arrive at empirically informed hunches through anecdotal experience, provided that one is sufficiently sensitive, observant, imaginative, and suspicious.  After all, what drives psychological research is the hunches of psychologists, which they derive from (among other things) their everyday observations, imaginings, and suspicions.  Nietzsche has those attributes in spades, so it stands to reason that, even though he was unable to test any of his hunches, they’re good hunches to start from.

On 2., I must confess that I’m more interested in arriving at the truth than in preserving what used to be thought, regardless of its truth value.  Call me quixotic.  But that said, I recognize that one of the ways in which we often fail to arrive at the truth is by failing to realize that there are more possibilities than seem apparent.  Just to illustrate: consider the rise of expressivism in metaethics.  It might initially seem that there are only two ways to characterize an utterance of the form, “X is wrong.”  Either it’s true, or it’s false.  What the expressivists tried to do (regardless of whether they succeeded) was to show that, instead of making an assertion, such an utterance might be a completely different sort of speech act — an expression of disapprobation, which is neither true nor false.  One could of course arrive at the expressivist position through an act of imaginative creativity, but creativity is hard.  Really hard.  Moreover, precisely when creativity is called for, it often seems irrelevant.  So another way to arrive at the expressivist position is cull through the storehouse of ideas that we call the history of philosophy.  I think it would be uncontroversial to say that Nietzsche had better access to that storehouse — especially to some of the more remote, ancient Greek regions of that storehouse — than most.

On 3., the point should be obvious once comprehended.  Nietzsche would never have been tempted to conclude, with Moore, with goodness was a simple, undefinable, non-natural property.  Where Moore saw simplicity and purity, Nietzsche sought out dirty historical contingency.  Nietzsche, after a brief flirtation, became unable to take seriously the Kantian picture of agency, with its unmoved movers and theological overtones.  His own picture of human nature might be dismaying; it might be cynical; it might even be wrong.  But it certainly is not mawkishly religious.

On 4., I will confess that I know less about Nietzsche’s biography than others, but from his published writings he seems to have been more than ordinarily sensitive to affect and emotion, and to the causal role they play in our psychological economies.  This probably caused him a lot of suffering, but it also seems to have made available insights that less sensitive people can only attain through statistical studies.  Jon Haidt’s work on social intuitionism, along with much other recent empirical work, seems to bear out many of the (self-)observations that Nietzsche made.  Our behavior is subtly but powerfully governed by the seemingly trivial and often imperceptible interplay of the affects.  In my own work, I discuss how both moral virtues (generosity, compassion, courage) and intellectual virtues (curiosity, creativity, flexibility) are surprisingly sensitive to situational influences on the emotions.  People become more generous, more compassionate, and better disposed to notice subtle threats when they’re in a good mood.  They become more curious, more creative, and more flexible when they’re in a good mood.  (Negative moods are more complicated — a point I hope to discuss in another post.)  The mood needn’t be severe or even noticeable to have this kind of effect.

There are probably other reasons to favor Nietzsche.  He calls psychology the queen of the sciences in Beyond Good and Evil.  He’s arguably the best stylist in the history of philosophy.  He’s almost certainly the best polemicist since Diogenes.  But for those of us who strive to be empirically informed, Nietzsche has special attractions.

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