Morality as a problem

Friedrich Nietzsche made this enigmatic remark about moral philosophy:

  • “In all ‘science of morals’ so far one thing was lacking, strange as it may sound: the problem of morality itself; what was lacking was any suspicion that there was something problematic here.”

What did Nietzsche mean? He seems to have been thinking of a very human tendency, namely, that of assuming that we already know what morality demands, at least roughly. The tendency, then, is to treat morality as given. Every sane person knows it intuitively!

The task of moral philosophy, identified on the basis of this tendency, becomes the following: dig deep enough to find the ultimate foundation of morality; or, fly high enough to catch sight of the ultimate moral principles.

How could Nietzsche view this daring work of digging and flying as being naïve to morality as a problem? People generally don’t ask these ultimate questions about morality. They don’t venture uncertain digging and flying expeditions. Asking the ultimate questions about morality seems anything but naïve.

Although daring on the assumption that morality is given, these ethical expeditions come too late, Nietzsche suggests. If we had been digging and flying a little bit earlier in the research process, we would have discovered that morality isn’t given:

  • “Just because our moral philosophers… were poorly informed and not even very curious about different peoples, times, and past ages – they never laid eyes on the real problems of morality; for these emerge only when we compare many moralities.”

We don’t live in a lukewarm condition of moral unity and certainty. There are different forms of moral sensitivity and we occasionally experience crises of uncertainty. We change our firmest certainties and even view each other’s (and our own earlier) certainties as absurd.

You may think what you like about Nietzsche’s own moral tendency, but he helps us identify morality as a philosophical problem in a more comprehensive way than if we defined the problem on the basis of the human tendency of moral introversion described above.

Morality has two faces. It consists not only of familiar certainties apparently in need of foundations. It consists also of uncertainty, change, and diversity. Certainty turns into uncertainty; and uncertainty into certainty. There is a dynamics here that we fail to see when we give in to the temptation to assume that morality already is given as a set of intuitive certainties.

I want to change Nietzsche’s notion of the task on one point. “Comparing many moralities” may not be the most useful ethical expedition if it is not combined with other investigations, since it may overemphasize facts that make all expressions of moral certainty seem idle; as a deceitful facade that we ought to get rid of once and for all.

The work we need to do rather is describing the two faces of morality simultaneously: achieving an overview of the movements back and forth between certainty and uncertainty.

Morality is stability and certainty and it is change and uncertainty.

Pär Segerdahl

We like challenging questions - the ethics blog

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