To what extent do our moral “truths” really hold up to scrutiny? What if all the values we think we adopt as our own turned out to be illusory? What if the beliefs, moral explanations, and guidelines for how we lived our life were just….false?
Nietzsche once said that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Most people would reject a claim denying the existence of facts as completely asinine. But I think Nietzsche here is less interested in convincing us by sound arguments and logical reasoning, and more so in getting his readers to start thinking, and in particular, questioning their own “facts.”
What I think Nietzsche is getting at is essentially a type of moral skepticism. In the world or existence, individuals act; they do things. This much we are relatively certain. Some of these actions we judge as “good,” and others, “evil.” If a man donates half of his pay check to charity, we say that his action was morally “good.” If, on the other hand, he steals from the collection pot, we say his actions were morally “bad.”
But by whose standards are such actions judged? Notions of “good” and “evil” didn’t appear out of nowhere. We inherited them. Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals is an attempt to trace contemporary Judeo-Christian morality to its roots among the oppressed classes in the Roman Empire. He calls Judeo-Christian morality, with all of its egalitarian motifs and rejection of this life for a transcendental afterlife, as slave morality. Accordingly, slave morality was a “revolt” against the dominant “master morality” among the Roman aristocracy. Whereas slave morality prioritized those values conducive to the oppressed classes, master morality emphasized a corresponding set of values
Aside from the specific content of our moral valuations – the manner in which we come to adopt our values as our own is also taken for granted. Generally speaking, our values tell us more than right from wrong, good from bad, praiseworthy from objectionable; they tell us what’s meaningful to us as members of that particular community; they provide guidelines for how we are to relate to others and ourselves; and they provide a certain structure for what it means to become a full-fledged member of the community. Values make up a big part of our “world,” our shared background practices that make intelligibility possible. When we’re born, we’re always already born into a “world,” and thus, from the world we derive a great degree of what will later be incorporated into our individual personality; for example, our native language, our customs, our ways of being-in-the-world, as well as our values. The world constitutes those practices and ways of giving meaning to being that enable us to participate in a shared community of others.
As members of a given culture, we inherit the same horizon of all that is made intelligible on account of our “thrownness” into a world. Thus, just as I didn’t “choose” my parents, to be born a male, or to have green eyes; I also had no say in being born into a country with these particular values over any other. Thus, I may have just as easily been born into a country with diametrically opposed values to those upheld in this particular culture. If this were not the case, then any understanding of “morality” as we know it, and value judgments on a cultural or national level generally, would be impossible.”
As always, it helps if we look to the phenomena to illustrate what we’re talking about here. Every moral interpretation begins by mis-interpreting a perceived fact. Imagine you’re in the library, and you notice someone remove a book from the shelf. Rather than put it in their basket, they look to see if anyone is noticing, and they discreetly place the book inside their back-pack with the clear intent of stealing the book. Assuming that our observer has been sufficiently socialized into the dominant norms and valuations of his culture, and assuming that he is generally capable of making value judgments, in an instant, he will recognize that (a) this is a situation in which at least two established moral norms apply; (b) the moral norms are: “it is wrong to take someone’s property without their permission,” and “it is wrong to take someone’s property with the intention of not returning it.” (c) the person who removed the book from the shelf and placed it in his bag did so without going through the proper channels for checking the book out; and (d) by not checking it out, he most likely does not intend to return it.
All of this, of course, takes place at a pre-conceptual level. Our observer does not process this information in the same manner in which he’d process a mathematical or reading comprehension problem; only later, when he makes an attempt to articulate his observation, does he raise his perception to the level of discourse and understanding. But even before we reach that level, there are many things involved at this stage.
Again, we have an observer making a judgment about an observed phenomena; in his judgment of the situation, the observer invokes at least two moral norms; next, he judges that the actions observed constituted a violation of those norms; and finally, he assigns blame (responsibility) to the actor for whom he perceives to be violating the moral norms. All of this, however, rests on a number of broad and indefensible assumptions.
First, it assumes the existence of moral norms;
Second, it assumes that moral qualities inhere in actions;
Third, it assumes that people act freely, and thus may be held accountable for their actions.
Let’s now imagine the same facts as above, except this time there is no observer to witness the person removing the book from the shelf and placing it in his bag. Without an observer to make the value judgment, how sure are we that what’s going on is wrong? To be certain, we can imagine ourselves in a culture in which private property is not generally respected, or that removing items from libraries without checking them out first is not “stealing” in the way in which that word is normally understood.
Are we prepared to make the argument that, under these circumstances, an immoral act has taken place? Without an active observer to impose moral blameworthiness, is the person who removed the books really acting immorally? To what extent can value judgments exist without an existing individual to make them?
What if we knew that the person who took the book was from a culture that discouraged respect for private property? Or a culture in which libraries operate on some version of an “honor system” in which patrons remove books and are expected to bring them back when they’re done. Does his ignorance of our culture’s way of doing things render his actions immoral?
Who’s to say which interpretation is better? What seems practical and plausible to the observer may be completely different than that which seems appropriate to the person removing the book. In this sense, there may be a breakdown in terms of which norms hold in the given situation. To our observer, this appeared to be a blatant case of stealing; but to another observer, it may appear morally neutral.
To what extent are we sure that his actions are free? Is it not plausible that we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that inside all of us is a rational free agent capable of being held accountable for his actions in the world? What if “free will” was nothing more than an invention of moral reformers hell-bent on imposing their views of what’s “good” on the rest of us? This is all the more possible when one takes into consideration the sizeable degree to which most of our life is already determined for us (our genetic make-up, our culture, our heritage and traditions, our language, our parents, our personality/character, etc.).
What about the fact that our moral values aren’t genuinely our own, but are inherited? What’s left for morality if we have no reason to believe that our value judgments are any more “real” than those of any other culture on this planet, or any other culture that has existed throughout history, for that matter?
Consider another example outside the usual confines of “morality.” In most countries, we celebrate life and mourn death. We take for granted that life is “good,” and death “bad.” But what if death isn’t so bad? After all, we know absolutely nothing about what happens to us when we die; but, we know a lot about life. We also know that, generally speaking, life tends to be a particularly difficult and exacting task, rife with misery, suffering, and disappointment.
How do we know that the Judeo-Christian tradition, which abhors suicide, is more correct than the opposition conclusion drawn by many ancient cultures in which, at least under certain circumstances, suicide was an honorable and noble thing to do?
What if life were not a gift; but a curse? What would it mean if, in the end, Sophocles was correct…what’s best for us would be to have never been born; and second best, would be to “die soon.”
In short, the norms by which we evaluate the criteria for moral behavior are themselves derived directly from the background of social practices. These practices, in turn, constitute all intelligibility for a given community and culture, and every individual member therein. Insofar as individuals apply these norms, this is the background upon which moral phenomena is made possible.
In the same vein, the background social practices are never absolute, but only find relative authority for the community who posits them. In this sense, all morality and normative evaluations generally are wholly customary.