Turtles All The Way Down

by Mike O’Brien

I don’t always make great decisions, but swearing off political commentary two months ago was a really, really good one.


As I stated two columns ago, I’ve been wanting to write more about ecological ethics, and more specifically about ethical obligations across species. Last month I laid out my criticisms of animal rights. In summary, rights discourse is a language game, and humans are the only animals on Earth who can play it. Not to say that we can’t articulate a case for treating animals well using a language of rights; this is indeed the most effective path to legal protection at the moment. But we say something nonsensical when we articulate that case, which may or may not matter in the grand scheme of things.

For my next trick, I’d like to take on ethical naturalism, and similar presuppositions about where morality comes from. Ethical naturalism is basically the idea that moral rightness and wrongness is a natural fact, and can be discovered by observing natural facts.

During my philosophy studies I’d often hear of the “naturalistic fallacy”, which is the (supposedly) fallacious belief that, because things are a certain way in the world, it follows that things ought to be that way. It often came up during debates about legalizing gay marriage (this was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, before “gay” was replaced by more broadly inclusive shorthand). Opponents of expanding the legal definition of marriage would point to a preponderance of heterosexual dyads in nature as the “normal” mode of mate coupling. Proponents of expanding the definition would either (1) point to exceptions to this pattern in the natural world (who doesn’t like gay swans? Actually, a lot of people don’t, because swans are bastards regardless of their sexual orientation), or (2) reject the argument that natural preponderance is evidence of moral exemplarity.

Many naturalistic fallacies are readily accepted currency in public debate, and presumably always have been, though lately they tend to be re-framed in some kind of mushy pseudo-Darwinism. If “that’s the way God made it, so that’s the way it should be” sound laughably archaic to you ears, try “evolution has preserved it, so it obviously has utility”. Both forms are pressed into service to justify existing patterns of behaviour , be it hetero-normative marriage restrictions or polygamous straying.

I happen to believe that Darwinian evolution (modified as necessary to accommodate subsequent discoveries) is the best explanatory framework for why life (including 21st-century humans) is the way it is. But I can’t fathom how the kinds of natural facts elucidated by evolutionary biology could possibly explain what is right or wrong, and why. They can only modify the factual contingencies of enacting moral values.

There is a particularly striking irony that many “New Atheist” types (acolytes of Dawkins, Harris, and worse) smugly deride religious believers for their faith in revelation. Not capital “R” Revelation, mind you, which is a bonkers fever-dream, but the idea that knowledge of supernatural facts can be put into our minds by a divine intervention. Burning bushes, lighting to the head, that sort of thing. Claiming evidentiary standing for “revealed” truths of this sort really riles up the dour science types, because it can’t be refuted with empirical facts. But ethical naturalism consists in precisely this kind of faith, that some observed event or pattern in the natural world will reveal transcendental truths.

I once had a conversation with a very scientifically and philosophically literate ethicist. (I’ve actually had many such conversations. #Blessed). During the course of our discussion, I got the impression that they held to some kind of ethical naturalism, but I assumed that it couldn’t be as simple and untroubled as it appeared to me. Somewhat puzzled, I asked if they just assumed that empirical science would eventually reveal moral facts, like dinosaur bones waiting to be dug up. And they replied that yes, in fact, that is exactly what they thought. This was also one of the more stridently anti-religion philosophers I had spoken with, which made this belief in revelation all the more surprising.

So, let’s talk about Nietzsche. There’s a rather stridently anti-religion fellow for you. A bit much for my tastes, but my experience with Christianity (soft-lefty Catholicism in a late 20th-century secular democracy) is quite different from old Friedrich’s. Not that he only had bad things to say about religion, or that every bad thing he said was in earnest. But he was, on balance, not a fan. There are many colourful details about Nietzsche that lend themselves to an ecological discussion. His animal fables, his reported collapse from nerves after seeing a horse being beaten, the centrality of “life” to his conceptual palette. Particularly poignant is his exhortation to find the right climate in order to live well. Whomp-whomp. But these fun facts are not what draw me to him as a resource for ecological ethics.

I bring him up because he saw quite clearly the parallel between the fervent faiths of religion and science (or “scientism”). In fact, he rather mercilessly skewers the champions of Science and Reason who would presume to chase the priests from the temple, and only to install themselves in the very same seats. The desire to fulfill the promises of Truth proferred in pre-scientific understandings of the world must be tempered or even abandoned when those understandings are replaced. A genealogical understanding of the goals of “Truth” and “Knowledge” undermines not just the success of attempts to reach these goals, but the coherence of the goals themselves. To ask “how can we know?” is, sometimes, to beg the question.

A word about citing and discussing Nietzsche. With the recent fascist tantrums to the south, there have been quite a few off-the-cuff pieces in popular publications about Nietzsche’s political relevance, casting him as the far-right’s favourite thinker, a proto-fascist political theorist, and other scapegoating caricatures. Most of this is click-baiting, uninformed trash. Apparently reading books before citing them is a dying art, like quill-trimming or building stone henges. Beyond lazy opinion writers, there are many philosophers and philosophy-adjacent writers who have twisted Nietzsche’s work to their own ends, making his reception a muddled affair. German nationalists cast him as a proto-nationalist, libertarians cast him as a proto-libertarian, and French post-structuralists cast him as proto-execrable-prose-masquerading-as-philosophy. I honestly don’t know which is worse. (I joke! Nazis are always the worst. Even worse than libertarians and Derrideans). I implore any reader would wishes to know what Nietzsche thought to go straight to his books (“On the Genealogy of Morality” is most pertinent to this column), and bypass anyone who would speak on his behalf.

(That includes me. I’m making most of this up.)

Nietzsche was not, I think, an essentially political thinker. His words, being snappy and bombastic, were readily picked up by political sloganeers decades after his death, but that’s hardly his fault. He certainly criticized the democratic values of mass society, as a condition of existence which was hostile to the kind of individual flourishing that he championed. But such political conditions were primarily an irritant to be cursed, a disease to be diagnosed, and an obstacle to be circumvented. The idea that Nietzsche would waste his time, and debase his corpus, by planning a political structure to be inhabited by mass society is laughable, at least on my reading of his work.

He did, however, have an awful lot to say about morality, which is why I bring him up in a discussion of ecological ethics. His famous claim that “God is dead” announces the vacating of religion (or any comparable absolute) from its role in grounding morality. Not just that the moral do’s and don’ts are no longer stipulated by a religious tradition, but that the source of moral value itself has disappeared, and we have no apples-to-apples replacement for it. This first move, if accepted as plainly true, would justify a simple nihilism, the disavowal of any value in the world. There is a lot of truth in the evangelical claim that secular people have a God-shaped hole in their lives, although we differ on what to do about it. Stopping here gives us the caricature of the sullen youth, dog-eared book of aphorisms in hand, who won’t mow the lawn because nothing matters.

(Evangelicals are not wrong when they say that secular humanists have a God-shaped hole in their lives. But they don’t have many helpful suggestions about what to fill it with.)

Nietzsche doesn’t stop after the demolition portion of the revaluation, however, nor should anyone who claims to be following him. Just because your society, or the natural world, or God on high doesn’t supply you with ready-made values, doesn’t mean you can throw up your hands and say “all is for naught”. I mean, you can, but that’s rather uninteresting. Moral value, like artistic value, can be sustained in the world by our affirmation of it. Nietzsche was, above all, a “yeah-sayer” (as in, “yay, candy!”, not “yeah, whatever”), and once he gets most of the nay-saying out of his system his project is largely one of telling people how to say yes to life. That may sound like a fluffy self-help manual, which is not entirely unfair. But it’s a fluffy self-help manual that still has something to say to people who have deconstructed all antecedent foundations of value, and they are an under-served market.

So, ethical naturalism is off the table because it violates the is/ought distinction, and claims that some natural discovery will bridge that gap are based on a faith in revelation. Personhood and rights-based ethical foundations are off the table because (as my last column argued) most if not all non-human animals can’t play the language game by which those claims operate. Furthermore, these foundations are iffy even for humans, as they rely on a rather tenuous link between reason and moral compulsion. Religious and other traditional spiritual foundations for treating animals (and other natural entities) in certain ways don’t really get off the ground at all, as they’re more stipulations than arguments. (To be fair, lots of “philosophy” is really just stipulation, surrounded by verbose hand-waving.)

What’s left to ground an objectively valid moral value? Intuitions? Depending on you views, intuitions can be clues from the creator (this route is disqualified for magical thinking), or evolutionarily preserved instincts (disqualified for ethical naturalism), or maybe intelligible precepts of practical rationality (Kantian metaphysics, clever but untethered). Even if intuitions were accepted as evidence of moral value, I am very sceptical of the oft supposed universality of specific intuitions about specific cases. I expect properly diversified polling of moral intuitions to reveal several conflicting sets of intuitions, roughly tracking cultural membership, leaving us with dilemmas between mutually valid (or invalid) moral precepts.

You could say that my intuition about the normative authority of intuitions is that they have none.

The great undigested lesson from Nietzsche’s “revaluing of all values” is that we really are the authors and performers of right and wrong. This ethic is proper to humanity’s place on earth; monstrous, unopposed, and unaccountable. We really are, as a species, like mythical gods, able to shape the mountains, boil the seas, and turn the skies into fire. We are already in the process of doing these things (“we” meaning “a small group of the worst and most powerful members of our 8 billion-strong family”). Even if reversing our perversions of ecological order were possible in principle, things are probably too far gone now (we still have no idea what to do about Fukushima). Humanity is a race of monsters, and we have to choose what kind of monsters we are to become. The morality of monsters, even if it is a selfless and loving one, will necessarily be monstrous because it is essentially more than and other than natural.

The freedom (“plasticity” in science jargon) to change our patterns of behaviour to conform to values (and not the other way around) is how to match values to facts. Not that this is a mass project; Nietzsche’s “higher beings” are not some evolutionary step to which a whole species progresses. We will probably just march into extinction, acting much as we always have, regardless of whatever advances in moral understanding are made at the very edge of abstraction. I should mention that Nietzsche also has some helpful things to say about accepting fate. But those will have to wait for another column. (The experience of writing a monthly column does make Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrence” rather poignant).

Practically speaking, this approach doesn’t offer much compared to more ambitious projects of moral elucidation, which hope to find a fact or argument that can flip a switch in the mind of all who hear it and compel morally correct action. But it might be the clearest picture of what morality is, if it is anything at all. Most importantly, I think it frees morally curious and conscientious people from the constraining belief that they require permission, from God or reason or nature, to enact and affirm the values that compel them. If everyone did that, we might have a problem. But an exploding mass of self-overcoming humanity, unleashed by a deep understanding of Nietzsche, is not a problem we need to plan for any time soon. Friedrich is still waiting for his readers. I’d rather not think of how much more monstrous the world needs to become for them to find him.

(“Book Club at the End of the World”, anyone? Netflix, call me. It practically writes itself.)