Nietzsche
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

What is it

Nietzsche. Ken and John and Übermensch-at-large Brian Leiter discuss everyone's favorite syphilitic philosopher. Was he a mysogynistic Nazi-supporter, or an artistic visionary who sought to set us free from our moralistic chains? Boring radio is dead.

Listening Notes

There are many different types of moral theory. One, the divine command theory, states that the moral code by which we should abide comes down to us from the ten commandments of God. There is also Kant's view that reason dictates the commandments of morality. The moral law, according to Kant, is derivable from our own rational faculties and, not surprisingly, God's ten commandments can be found along with other maxims in our rationality. However, Nietzsche ascribed to neither of these views. Born in 1844, Nietzsche was influenced by Darwin and philosophers such as Schopenhauer. His moral theory mirrored more that of Hume's in sticking to the tenants of naturalism than it resembled deontological theories such as Kant's. The 18th century philosopher David Hume argued that morality is built on natural sympathy for others. John claims that, like Hume, Nietzsche was a naturalist. However, Ken remains uncertain about the validity of this claim. As far as he was taught, especially in graduate school, Nietzsche was a moral skeptic denying there were moral facts at all.

Brian Leiter defends the idea that Nietzsche was a naturalist. Like Hume, he thought that none of our beliefs are rationally justified. So, why believe in morality—or causation for that matter---if neither has rational foundation? While Hume and Nietzsche both try to speak to this problem, their accounts differ in their approaches. For Hume, we have a natural disposition for sympathy that leads us to accept our moral convictions. Nietzsche, however, has a psychological theory of morality that undermines our moral beliefs entirely. As John puts it, Nietzsche's story of morality explains why we have these beliefs without explaining whether or not they are true. At this point, Ken raises concern. Is Nietzsche saying that we shouldn't be moral? If this is the normative position he's advocating, how should we live without morality? The fear is that, once morality is undermined, anything and everything will be acceptable—the doctrine of “anything goes”. But Leiter believes there is little ground for this worry. It would not, he argues, be a mistake to believe in selflessness, equality, the importance of suffering, and the overcoming of bodily pleasures. These of course are the very things in the Judeo-Christian morality and ethical theories that Nietzsche critiques But if he were to claim that such beliefs were wrong or false, he couldn't hold himself to be a moral skeptic. Nietzsche thought that no moral belief system could be objectively true or false, not even his own beliefs about morality.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek To 00:04:15): Amy's report begins with an episode of the Sopranos in which A.J. Soprano, an angsty teenager, discovers existential philosophy and the philosophy of Frederich Nietzsche in particular. As a way to rebel against his parents, he refuses to get confirmed as a Catholic, citing Nietzsche's claims that God is dead and life is meaningless.  However, unlike A.J.'s sullen interpretation of Nietzsche's philosophy, Nietzsche thought that the fact that life is ultimately absurd was not a reason for angst but a cause for celebration, self-creation, and artistic fervor.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To 00:37:23): Schopenhauer, the man who claimed to know the unknowable world postulated by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. 
  • Conundrum (Seek To 00:49:10): Andrea calls in from San Francisco. She is a biologist and has been thinking about the question of why people are gay. She knows a lot of gay people in the city and has had many discussions with them about how gayness comes about. She has tried to argue that being gay is a choice, but the majority of the gay people she knows reject this claim. Society doesn't tolerate homosexuality very well, and some people wouldn't have chosen to be gay if they felt they could have a decision in the matter. Even so, Andrea has consistently stuck to the idea that choice should supercede biology. She asks whether she should abandon this line of argument.

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Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director, Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Value, University of Chicago

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