Saturday, August 29, 2015

Huddleston on "Nietzsche's Meta-Axiology: Against the Sceptical Readings"

This interesting paper appeared in British Journal for the History of Philosophy 22 (2014): 322-342.  The title is a play on my paper "Nietzsche's Metaethics:  Against the Privilege Readings," European Journal of Philosophy 8 (2000):  277-297 (hereafter my "EJP paper"), and Huddleston's main target are my different accounts of Nietzsche's anti-realism about value.  (My thinking about Huddleston's paper was helped by a useful discussion with faculty and graduate students in philosophy at UC Riverside last February.  I will cite to the second, 2015 edition of my Nietzsche on Morality [Routledge] as NOM, but by page number of the 2nd edition.)

Two preliminary terminological matters, one minor, the other less so.  On the minor:  Huddleston prefers the term "meta-axiology" rather than metaethics because N. is concerned broadly with the status of values, not just morality (Huddleston, 326-328, where he gives some other reasons).  Nothing turns on this.  Those discussing N's metaethics are discussing the same thing Huddleston is discussing, and are simply using the more common, contemporary term.   I'll follow Huddleston's usage here.

A slightly less minor terminological matter:  right at the start (322-323), Huddleston proposes a distinction between "values in the descriptive sense," meaning "the ideals and codes of conduct that people have...taken to be valuable" (322) and what he calls "genuine values," that is values that "are accurate to an evaluative fact-of-the-matter" (323) (which I take it means something like:  corresponding to "objective" value in some sense of "objective").  There's another relevant concept missing here, namely, "values in the normative sense," that is judgments that endorse (or recommend) values in the descriptive sense.   N. undoubtedly makes value judgments "in the normative sense."  The meta-axiological question is whether those judgments exemplify what Huddleston calls "genuine values."

Huddleston's official view is that he is "doubtful that" Nietzsche has a "sophisticated meta-axiological view" (323) and that the "texts seriously underdetermine where he stands on these important issues" (324).   Unfortunately, Huddleston here conflates (see esp. 323 and the scholarly papers cited in note 4) metaphysical and semantic questions that might be thought meta-ethical or meta-axiological (despite acknowledging at the end of the long footnote 6, p. 325, that he too is really concerned only with the metaphysical questions).  I, of course, argued in the EJP paper in 2000, in NOM in 2002, and every publication since, that the texts really do underdetermine ascription of any semantic theory of evaluative discourse to Nietzsche, a fact that should hardly be surprising given that prior to the 20th-century no one was really interested in that question.  Some sophisticated commentators on the semantic issues, including Nadeem Hussain (who earlier on defended a fictionalist reading) have since come around to this view (see his contribution to Gemes & Richardson [eds.], The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche [2013]).   On the metaphysical question, however, two points are worth emphasizing:  (1) it is not clear there really are that many different views (in fact, in the secondary literature and the broader intellectual reception of Nietzsche [from Weber to Carnap to MacIntyre]], anti-realist readings dominate), and (2) it is not at all clear the texts really underdetermine the question of Nietzsche's view of the metaphysics of value.  (Everyone in the history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the present has defended views about the metaphysics of value, so this would not have been a foreign topic to N.)

Regarding (2):  the primary weakness of Huddleston's paper is that he doesn't actually consider most of the anti-realist passages from Nietzsche (I provide a catalogue of many of them in "Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement in Nietzsche," in Oxford Studies in Metaethics 9 [2014], which I'll refer to hereafter as my OSM paper).  His strategy, instead, is to criticize particular arguments (mostly mine) for ascribing anti-realism about value to Nietzsche, considering only a handful of anti-realist passages (331 ff.).

Huddleston's first target (327-228) is the argument from disagreement among philosophers developed in my OSM paper.   The argument in brief:  the best explanation for why moral philosophers do not agree on foundational moral questions includes the fact that there is no cognizable truth about fundamental moral questions.   Huddleston notes that I treat as central a Nachlass passage (WP 428), though he is silent on the other passages in the published corpus I also point to.  (He also notes, as I do, that the passage, WP 428, is about morality not values, but that's precisely why I treat it as suggesting an argument for moral anti-realism only.)  He is also silent on how best to reconstruct the argument in the Nachlass passage, claiming instead that "there is strong evidence that Nietzsche definitively rejects a (similar, though not identical) argument from disagreement" in his published work (329).  Huddleston writes:
In Book V of The Gay Science, Nietzsche derides as "childish" the argument made by those who "see the truth that among different nations moral valuations are necessarily different and then infer from this that no morality is at all binding [einen Schluss auf Unverbindlickheit aller Moral machen] (GS 345) 
This is certainly a significant passage to consider in this context, though its meaning is a bit more complex than this gloss suggests.  First, note that the argument criticized in GS 345 is different than the argument at stake in WP 428 as I reconstruct it:  for GS 345 involves appeal to differences in ordinary moral opinions "among different nations," while the whole interest of the WP 428 argument is that it depends on "expert" disagreement, that is, foundational disagreement about morality among major philosophers across the ages.  Someone who thought the WP 428 abductive argument for moral skepticism was correct could agree that moral differences "among different nations" is poor evidence for moral skepticism.

Second, and more importantly, the context of this passage suggests that its subject is not the subject of WP 428, namely, whether it is a "swindle to talk of 'truth'" when it comes to morality.  The topic of GS 345, by contrast, is about the failure of most thinkers to really consider the problem of the value of morality.  Nietzsche gives several examples of the failure to engage with this problem.  One is to draw inferences about whether a morality is or is not "binding" from the fact that there is "some consensus of the nations, at least of tame nations, concerning certain principles of morals" (which is taken as evidence that "these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me") or the converse inference, already quoted.  But a more "refined" mistake is to commit the genetic fallacy, to fail to realize that, "Even if a morality has grown out of an error, the realization of this fact would not as much as touch the problem of its value" (GS 345).   I take it, then, that whether or not a morality ought to be treated as binding is the same as the "problem of its value," not the problem of its truth.  It's clearly compatible with my reconstruction of the WP 428 argument that anti-realism about moral value has no bearing on the question which moralities are valuable.  Only on the unNietzschean assumption that a true morality is necessarily valuable (N's whole corpus repeatedly raises the question of the value of truth, of course), or the question-begging assumption that a morality N. judges to be valuable is therefore true, would we be able to assimilate the concern of GS 345 to that of WP 428 and the skeptical argument from disagreement I defend in the OSM paper.

Huddleston briefly considers a different argument:  namely, "N's frequent assimilation of value judgments to matters of taste" (329).  He does not adduce any textual evidence that N. thinks judgments of taste can be objectively true or false, noting only that "it is far from obvious that someone as elitist and snobbish as N. would think that there are no standards of correctness in matters of taste" (329).  One can agree it is not "obvious"--no one said it was, but the language about judgments of "taste" does occur within a rich web of anti-realist passages that invite the skeptical reading of "taste"--but Huddleston muddies the issue by asserting that the skeptical reading has to claim "that there is no genuine privilege that one person's taste can have over another's" (329).  If "genuine privilege" is interpreted to mean an epistemic privilege of the kind involved in Huddleston's "genuine values," then, yes, the skeptical reading does deny that.  But there are other kinds of privileges tastes can enjoy, such as being marks of nobility, being conducive to the flourishing of genius, and so on, that are compatible with the skeptical position.  (I also discuss some of N's "elitist and snobbish" rhetoric and how to interpret it in NOM, 125-126.)

Finally, Huddleston considers (329-331) the argument in NOM (121 ff.) that N. offers a best-explanation argument for moral anti-realism (Huddleston is right that this is not an argument for anti-realism about all value, but I did not claim it was).   Huddleston notes that "even stipulating that N. thinks one can explain all evaluative commitments by reference to wholly non-evaluative facts about the people with those commitments and their environments, it is contentious, on purely philosophical grounds, that the strong eliminativist conclusion [about moral values] should follow" (330).  This is true but trivial:  every philosophical claim is contentious, but I have offered arguments for that conclusion (cf. "Moral Facts and Best Explanations," Social Philosophy & Policy [2001], and reprinted in my Naturalizing Jurisprudence [OUP, 2007]), while Huddleston offers no arguments for the opposing view.  The only substantive objection Huddleston makes to the best-explanation reading of Nietzsche's moral anti-realism is to note that N's explanations "are far from being couched in wholly non-evaluative, cooly scientific terms," involving he says "thick concepts such as nobility and baseness, concepts in which an evaluative dimension arguably is already built in" (330).  Put aside that "nobility" is a matter of a cluster of descriptive psychological traits (e.g., self-reverence), none of the best explanation arguments I identify in Nietzsche require "nobility" to do explanatory work.  I have also argued (NOM, 122-123) that possibly evaluative concepts like "high" and "low" function as explicitly evaluative terms for N., on a par with "good and evil," and so warranting anti-realist interpretation.  Huddleston is silent on this.

In the second major part of his paper (331-334), Huddleston takes up a couple of apparently anti-realist passages about value and tries to offer different interpretations.   These includes GS 301 (nature lacks "value in itself" value "has been a present") and Z I ("On the Thousand and One Goals").  Huddleston aptly glosses these passages as suggesting that in value judgments "[t]here is simply the projection of our attitudes onto axiologically neutral reality" (332).

Huddleston suggests that it is not clear that GS 301, in particular, isn't only about "values in the descriptive sense" rather than all values (including what Huddleston calls "genuine values") (332).  That there is nothing in the passage that indicates it is limited to "values in the descriptive sense"  suggests to me that this is a somewhat desperate shifting of the burden of proof rather than a serious argument.

More interestingly, Huddleston notes that a projectivist view like that suggested in GS 301 could  be compatible with "the idea that the evaluative facts which ground genuine values are themselves not wholly mind-independent facts" (332).  He here refers, appropriately, to Alex Silk's important paper on "Nietzschean Constructivism," in the special issue of Inquiry I edited in 2015 (vol. 58, 244-280).  I hope to discuss Silk's paper in a future posting.  But given that Huddleston repeatedly urges caution about ascribing perhaps anachronistic views to Nietzsche, it is ironic, and not very convincing, to be told that N. may believe in "genuine values" in Huddleston's sense because the texts might admit of the latest in high-tech metaethical readings from Michigan!  (Even worse, Huddleston suggests [334], though doesn't really argue, that N's views might admit of interpretation along Razian lines!)

Huddleston devotes another section of his paper to Reginster's account of "perspectival value" in Nietzsche.  I found this to be one of the least compelling part of Reginster's book, and I don't have anything to add to Nadeem Hussain's criticisms of Reginster's views on this score (see Hussain,
"Metaethics and Nihilism in Reginster's The Affirmation of Life" Journal of Nietzsche Studies 43 (2012):  99-117).

In his conclusion, Huddleston describes his project in the paper as "historical and exegetical in character" (340), though that seems to me quite misleading given how few texts, let alone historical influences, Huddleston considers, and how much he relies on the more possibility of alternative readings of the texts he considers, readings that aren't argued for in any detail, and that often depend on contemporary resources quite foreign to N.   Huddleston also mentions the core argument of my 2002 EJP paper, namely, that no workable argument can be constructed for the most popular realist hypothesis, namely, that N. thinks will to power is objectively valuable.  Huddleston declares this "is a particularly implausible variant of value realism both textually and philosophically" (339).  Here we are in partial agreement (philosophically it is absurd, including in Katsafanas's version, which Huddleston has ablely critiqued in an as-of-yet unpublished paper), though there's no question it has been the kind of value realism most often attributed to Nietzsche over the last century. 

At the very end of his paper, Huddleston, considering the possibility that Nietzsche is "skeptical of the very idea that anything is really valuable," writes:
This has the surprising and, to my mind, unsatisfying result that N. thinks the great multitude laboring under a form of ideology are not mistaken in their outlook.  It could be that N. thinks this.  Yet at the risk of defanging N's impassioned critique of the ideological we have inherited, this seems to me a position of last resort.  (340)
But this conclusion is a really astonishing non-sequitur on my arguments, which have been his target throughout the paper.   Indeed, I myself use the metaphor of "false consciousness" to characterize N's project, since N. clearly thinks that higher human beings are clearly mistaken in thinking that "herd morality" (or MPS, as I call it) is good for them, and he clearly thinks that proponents of MPS are committed to all kinds of cognitive mistakes (about freedom of the will, about the motives for which they act, and so on).   As I also argue, N's fundamental objection to MPS is not that it involves cognitive errors (though the fact that it does will have considerable rhetorical force for some of its adherents), but that it is harmful to certain kinds of people, N's rightful readers (see NOM, 126-132 for a thorough discussion of this issue).  

The real significance of Huddleston's conclusion, however, is what it betrays about the assumptions many readers of N. bring to the text:  namely, that they bring to bear the bias that cognitive error is really important, and that evaluative judgments can't be taken seriously unless they correspond to genuine values.   But both assumptions are utterly unNietzschean:  falsity is never N's basic objection to any belief, and evaluative judgments are none the worse because they do not have "reality" or "God" standing behind them.  These kinds of moralistic prejudices are a frequent impediment to readings of Nietzsche, I fear.

As with prior discussions on this blog, I only pick serious papers for extended critical discussion.  This is a serious paper that those interested in the meta-axiological issues should read.


Andrew said...

Thanks, Brian, for engaging with my paper so extensively and so thoughtfully.

Some points in reply (posted as separate comments)

1) On the issue of attributing to Nietzsche an argument from disagreement: I don’t see how the Nachlass passage {WP, 428} (its textual pedigree aside) supports the claim you want to make. In the first half of the passage, Nietzsche makes nearly the same point he makes in GS 345 about the “geographical relativity” of value judgements. So part of the critique leveled by the Sophists is very close to a form of argument he rejects in his published work as “childish.” I take it you want to read the other part of the Sophists’ critique in the following way: as arguing from expert disagreement in moral theorizing to a conclusion that discredits the legitimacy of moral values. But Nietzsche’s point here (as well as in BGE 5, 186, and 187 that you also cite) is actually, I believe, something narrower—namely, that the reasons and arguments given in dialectical support for particular moral theories are sophistical and unpersuasive. This is a criticism of attempts to justify morality by way of philosophical argument, or to put it on rational foundations (BGE 186), something he thinks is “laugh[able].” It is not about the legitimacy of any moral norms whatsoever, which is unsurprising coming from something who thinks that there are truly things to be done and avoided, and that one would be a “fool” to deny this (D, 103). So far as I can tell, he is not arguing from the mere fact of disagreement, even expert disagreement, to a skeptical conclusion about anything other than this futile *rationalizing/justifying project*.

I focused on the Nachlass passage in my paper, because it is the only one that arguably speaks to values in general (in light of its final sentence) as opposed to addressing morality in particular. I don’t believe that Nietzsche offers the abductive argument that you claim he does even when it comes to morality (which is, after all, your main focus). I think he certainly does not offer it with regard to values in general.

As I note in the paper, the style of argument criticized in GS 345 is similar, but not identical, because (as you rightly say), it considers disagreement “among different nations.” In your reply, however, you seem to me to conflate the question of whether morality is binding (i.e., whether its norms are authoritative or legitimate) with the question of whether it is *valuable*. Nietzsche does not himself appear to equate these questions. He first criticizes the non-sequitur of concluding from “disagreement among nations” that no morality is binding. (Which is not to say that he thinks any morality IS binding, simply that this is bad argument for the skeptical conclusion…) He then, in the next paragraph, goes on to criticize mistakes “made by the more refined among [historians of morality]”—thus presumably those who don’t make this problematic argument above—who look not to the mere fact of disagreement among nations, but to facts about “its origin, religious sanction, the superstition of free will” and then use mistakes here to criticize morality. It is *only* at this point that he talks about the “*value* [emphasis mine] of a command ‘thou shalt’” and notes that even if morality arose from tissues of error, this wouldn’t settle anything about its value. The question of whether morality is binding and whether it is valuable are separate questions. Likewise, whether morality is *itself* true (i.e., makes accurate claims about what we ought to do) is different from whether it is undergirded or rooted in untruths and superstitions (about religious origin, free will, etc. {GS, 345}. The question of whether morality is itself true is perhaps not exactly the same as whether it is binding, but is very close to it. I agree with you that it is an “un-Nietzschean assumption” to claim that only a morality undergirded by truths is valuable or that only a true morality is valuable. But nothing I say assumes this; indeed, quite the contrary.

Andrew said...

2) Regarding the subjectivity and objectivity of taste, you note that the remarks about taste “occur within a rich web of anti-realist passages” that invite the skeptical reading. Yet precisely what is in dispute is whether these passages are anti-realist, and if so, to what extent (about morality, about various religious and metaphysical doctrines, or about taste in addition). I agree with you that there is a weaker way for certain tastes to have a privilege or legitimacy, but this sort of privilege is not relevant to the question at issue in the paper. Again, my point is not that Nietzsche is a realist about taste, but rather that he is assumed, without, in my view, adequate argument or textual evidence, to be anti-realist and that this imposition is overly hasty.

3) Regarding the best explanation point, I don’t think you’ve addressed the argument I put forward. You focus on the sentence before the argument and say it is “true, but trivial,” but then do not have anything to say about the actual argument itself. The argument was: Even if we can explain by reference to wholly non-evaluative facts why people hold the evaluative beliefs that they do, the eliminativist conclusion is not necessarily warranted. I go on to give reasons for this. “This recognition may be grounds for something weaker, perhaps epistemic humility about one’s first-order value judgements, or agnosticism about the standing of values, instead of outright skepticism about the standing of any values. After all, it may be overdetermined why people accept the values that they do or it may be that non-evaluative considerations simply have more explanatory heft than evaluative ones, even though there are nonetheless genuine evaluative facts.” You are likely unpersuaded. It is topic about which you have written extensively, I know, and you may have good answers to these points. While my objection may be off base and ultimately wrong, it is not, I think, a trivial point.

4) As for the second point against the best explanation style argument, I agree (I think?) that you attribute best explanation arguments to Nietzsche that do not depend on substantive normative conclusions being among the explanantia. My objection was instead the exegetical one that Nietzsche is not indeed making such arguments, because of the way that normative considerations and thick concepts creep into the explanations he actually offers. I think this should be acknowledged, regardless of where one stands on Nietzsche’s meta-axiology, and indeed it is compatible with strong anti-realism. It is a point about the kinds of explanations Nietzsche actually appeals to and the extent to which his own values (putting aside any question of their ultimate legitimacy) are implicated in them. It would take further work to argue for this point, and that was not something I could do in the space of this paper. A task for the future, perhaps.

Andrew said...

5) In the fourth section of the paper, I discuss two main passages (one from GS, one from TSZ), because these are the two most often cited by proponents of skeptical readings. Of these, GS 301 is, I believe, the sole passage in Nietzsche’s published work that can be read as strong evidence in support of blanket meta-axiological skepticism. (I am happy to stand corrected and have my mind changed on this point, but I’ve yet to find another such passage.) As I acknowledge in the paper, GS 301 can legitimately be read in such a skeptical way. So to describe my approach as a “desperate shifting of the burden of proof” seems rather out of place. It would be this, if I were claiming that it is realist by default until proven otherwise by the skeptics. But this is not my point at all. My point is that it is not clearly about meta-axiology (as opposed to about the status of value/values as a sociological property or set of anthropological entities). And that even if it is, nothing meta-axiologically directly follows from this particular metaphysics of value. Created value might still be genuine value, in the sense at issue in my piece.

6) In what I further say on that score, you see me as in danger of anachronism. Yet this criticism seems to me to be misplaced as well. I do mention Alex Silk’s interesting recent paper, but the potential positions I mention, with regard to GS 301, are present (if not endorsed) in Plato in the case of one and in the early modern period and possibly before, in the case of the other. My point here, as I am explicit in saying, is not the exegetical one that Nietzsche accepts such a view. It is instead a philosophical one about the space of possibilities: namely, what follows from the metaphysics of value (if indeed Nietzsche is offering such a metaphysics). Unlike other interpreters, I am not attributing these views to Nietzsche (which would indeed invite the charge of anachronism), but talking about the space between the text and potential positions. It is only in that spirit that I mention Raz in passing, with regard to the TSZ passage.

7) And as for that TSZ passage from “On the Thousand and One Goals”: Here, I think it is much more clear (certainly compared with GS 301) that Nietzsche is not talking about meta-axiology, but about “values” as sociological and anthropological entities (such as the good/evil value system that displaces the previous noble one). This passage is routinely cited as if it is strong evidence for meta-axiological skepticism. This seems to me to be a misreading of the passage in its context. But even if it is about meta-axiology, it does not clearly lend comfort to skepticism, for the reasons I outline.

8) There are indeed many other passages I might have discussed. But, as I say, I think GS 301 is the only one that is really a serious challenge on the question at issue. But I am happy to discuss others, if there are ones you have in mind.

Andrew said...

9) My remarks in the final paragraph of the paper were not, I believe, a “non-sequitur” on your arguments. It would be a non-sequitur if I accepted your starting point, and then offered something that didn’t follow from that starting point. I did not do this. Our interpretations disagree several steps back. First, I disagree that “false consciousness” with regard to morality (a very useful notion you introduce in this context) is limited to the “higher types.” In my view, the rest of humankind are also under a form of false consciousness. (Whether it is better for them to be free from it is another matter entirely…) Second, I disagree that morality is straightforwardly bad for the higher types. In my view, it is more of a mixed bag. Third, I disagree that Nietzsche’s sole objection to morality hinges on its effects on higher types (or on anyone else). It has many bad effects, but many good ones too. These are matters I treat elsewhere, and it would take us far from the present debate to consider them much further here, though I’d be grateful for your thoughts at some point on these papers too. (“‘Consecration to Culture’: Nietzsche on Slavery and Human Dignity”, Journal of the History of Philosophy 52:1 [2014]; “What is Enshrined in Morality? Understanding the Grounds for Nietzsche’s Critique,” Inquiry 58:3 [2015]).

10) In your penultimate paragraph, you suggest that two assumptions underlie my approach. First, that cognitive error is what is really important. Second, that evaluative judgements can’t be taken seriously unless they correspond to genuine values. I don’t think I operate under either assumption. On the first point, cognitive errors as such are not particularly troubling for Nietzsche. On this, we surely agree. Some of them may be necessary for life and beneficial for flourishing. Insofar as he objects to error, it because of the (a) perversity manifest in the type of error and/or (b) the character-weakness that making that error signals. Not all errors/mistakes are created equal, and error per se is not the problem. On the second point, I think it depends on what you mean by “taken seriously.” Certainly as objects of sociological and philosophical study, value judgments are important to investigate regardless of where one stands on any meta-axiological issues. Where I do disagree is about the ambitions of Nietzsche’s critical agenda. To my mind, he takes his critique to have bite even for those who don’t share his particular preferences. Now, I think even if it is true that he is an anti-realist, and even if anti-realism is the correct meta-axiological theory in its own right, his critiques would of course still be of intellectual interest and practical interest to some. But I do continue to think his ideology critique would be substantially de-fanged, by allying it with a blanket skepticism about value that the texts do not clearly warrant.