Foot on Nietzsche

Philippa Foot identifies three issues in Nietzsche and says a bit about each. Let me start by saying that I think she deserves credit for recognizing the need to address Nietzsche, something too often neglected by folks content to ignore him. She wishes to try answering Nietzsche with the resources of her own naturalistic account of moral evaluation.  

Before getting to Nietzsche, she mentions Thrasymachus in the Republic as an example of an immoralist; Thrasymachus argues that justice serves the interests of the stronger. Socrates sort of ties Thrasymachus up in knots, but Glaucon and Adeimantus push the immoralist point, saying the life of the strong unjust man is better than the life of the just man, so long as one can escape the consequences of being perceived as an unjust person. Socrates tries meeting the challenge by arguing that happiness is harmony of soul, and an unjust man has disorder there instead.

Foot doesn’t pursue that further, but asks how she would answer the challenge of immoralism on her own view. She begins with the idea of friendship, which she imagines that aliens coming down to watch humans could understand as something we choose to pursue because we need friendship despite the burdens it can sometimes impose. Aliens might, she suggests, see friendship much like the immoralist interlocutors of Socrates see justice: as the second best thing. What would be better, she imagines them thinking, would be not to need friendship at all—as some very rich people don’t, perhaps. But for most human beings, friendship is worth it because of the rewards. If one could get the rewards, though, by not being a friend but just projecting the impression of being a friend while avoiding the actual burdens, that would be preferable.

The point of the analogy for Foot is that she wishes to suggest that the Martians would not understand the true nature of friendship. A Thrasymachean view of friendship is something she thinks we can instantly recognize as wrong. Likewise with a view of parenting that hesitates to put the good of the child before one’s own—as if a parent’s care of his child is just to hedge his bets and provide security for himself in the future. Not all instances of doing justice are motivated by love, though; we also pay debts, say, to profligate creditors. Here Foot is drawn to a virtue ethic that involves love of justice and a character that recognizes the claim of any human being to a kind of respect.

At this point she skips ahead to Nietzsche. Here she identifies three theses in Nietzsche she thinks it’s good we separate out. First is his insistence that free will is an illusion. In many ways his convictions on this matter fueled his views about morality, because without meaningful free will (or a substantive self) morality can’t seem to get off the ground, and blaming people for wrongdoing seems particularly misguided. He was wholly skeptical of meaningful free will as he thought it needed to be predicated on something quite mysterious, perhaps something like Kant’s noumenal self of which Nietzsche was nothing but hostile.

Foot isn’t overly worried about this challenge, as she thinks there are other alternative and better ways of understanding the distinction between the voluntary and involuntary than what Nietzsche seems to have assumed, and that a bloodthirsty desire for vengeance need not be at the root of moral evaluation. I agree with her on the latter, though I think that’s a caricature of retributive justice, and though I don’t think we need to posit a Kantian picture of the will, I am inclined to something like substantive agency theory. On a deterministic picture, which seems the likely scenario on Foot’s naturalism, not only would we have an inability to do otherwise, the sufficient conditions to ensure our every action would be in place before we were born. This is the insight of the source theorists with whom I tend to agree. Foot seems content with a compatibilist account of freedom, which I think is just flat inadequate for the purposes of morality. It violates the deontic principle of ‘ought implies can’ and makes anything like strong ascriptions of moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness seem like utter mistakes. So I’m inclined to side with Nietzsche in thinking that without substantive libertarian free will morality is dead in the water, though I disagree with him on the question of whether we have it. I agree with Foot that we’re meaningfully free, but disagree with her that her analysis of what that looks like is the right picture.

Next Foot turns to a second thread in Nietzsche’s thought: the attack on specifically Christian morality, especially ‘pity morality’ and the ‘herd morality’ that is secretly cruel and resentful, encouraging acts of ‘kindness’ that demean the recipient and bolster the self-esteem of the person performing the action. Here she goes into Nietzsche’s views about the way morality often functions to reduce and harm us, and how the true human good would privilege individuality, spontaneity, daring, and creativity.

Foot takes on this charge that one has to see morality that stresses the humanness of sympathy as mistaken. Must compassion be driven by a sense of inferiority? Is charity most usually a sham? Surely it is sometimes, she thinks, but the idea that it always is strains her credulity and she doesn’t seem to think there are good reasons to take the charge seriously, though she acknowledges that depth psychology has plenty to offer us to disabuse us from thinking that our ostensible motivations are always our actual ones down deep.

Perhaps at this point I should clarify in broad outline what her moral theory says. She wants to make moral goodness of a piece with goodness per se, and wants to tear down the distinctions between animals and humans. So her story generally goes like this: Various species feature behaviors that ‘fit’ their species. Rabbits jump and tigers run and such; these are natural normativities. It’s (nonmorally) good for such species to engage in these fitting behaviors. Humans feature analogous behaviors too, in light of the sort of species we are. When certain of these natural normativities (she likes to call them ‘Aristotelian categoricals’ following Michael Thompson or ‘Aristotelian necessities’ following Anscombe) are relevant to the happiness of human beings—which in neo-Aristotelian fashion she spells out in terms of human flourishing—they’re teleologically significant natural normativities that are aptly understood as morally objective facts about us. In this way moral goodness flows naturally out of natural goodness. Contra Nietzsche she thinks something like, say, compassion, particularly a character of compassion, is an example of something morally objective (and good) as a result of being an instance of a built-in natural normativity—a kind of behavior that fits with who we are as human beings and conduces to our flourishing.

In one sense she thinks what Nietzsche is doing here is right. He’s attempting to ask if, say, pity is good for the one doing it and the one being pitied, and Nietzsche thought the answer was no. If indeed such pity was harmful, Foot would likely agree that putting a stop to pitying wouldn’t be a moral defect, and might be a morally good thing for us to do. She’s not convinced he was right in his analysis, though. For one thing, she thinks much of what he did was mixed together with overblown guesswork about hideous motives in people like resentment and hatred, which she thinks is in the main wrong. And though she confesses that perhaps nobody wants to be ‘pitied’, compassion seems something different and something that does play an important role in our species’ flourishing, so she’s not inclined to think his conclusions are right.

I tend to agree with Foot on this, though I harbor serious doubts her view is adequate to lay out the reasons why something like compassion is morally good. Here’s a reason why. She claims not to be a utilitarian. In fact she says that natural normativities in tigers and rabbits aren’t based on the assumption that the flourishing of such species is a good thing—one reason being that cancer cells too have their own natural normativities that pretty clearly don’t entail anything like moral objectivity or intrinsic goodness in their survival. But if the entailment doesn’t work for animals or pestilential creatures or cancer cells, why think it works for human beings? I don’t think she’s got enough resources to make the case that our flourishing is intrinsically good morally, nor that human Aristotelian categoricals even when teleologically significant to our flourishing constitute facts about moral objectivity. So though I agree with some of her conclusions in through here, I don’t think she’s provided good premises for them; I think classical theism much more plausibly might.

The third strand of Nietzsche’s thought she considers is this one: his denial of intrinsic badness in any acts at all. She attributes this view most ultimately to what she calls his ‘psychological individualism’, according to which the true nature of an action depends on the nature of the individual who did it. This led to his admiration for certain nobles of earlier times who plundered or raped or murdered. It’s true he spoke disparagingly of certain types of folks, like the merely licentious. All in all Foot thinks what largely led Nietzsche to his conclusions here was his invention of a generalizing theory of depth psychology for which there’s little empirical evidence. So she’s left thinking there’s just little reason to agree with his rejection of the idea that injury and oppression go contrary to justice. Indeed she wishes to dub such things irremediably wicked.

Again I tend to agree with her conclusion, but not the basis for it. I rather doubt she can generate the theory to undergird this sort of moral outrage with the resources of naturalism alone. Jerry Walls makes this case well in the second appendix of Good God.