I’ve been reading a weird variety of books lately, two of which are The Cambridge Companion to Charles Darwin and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (actually, re-reading this one).
Several of the essays in the Darwin book concern Darwinism and ethics. I think a reasonable view of the connection between the two is as follows. There is, no doubt, some evolutionary account to be given of why human beings have ended up with a certain range of moral emotions, including fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Having these emotions, and sharing roughly the same responses to the same things, helps foster coordination and cooperation, which seem to be a good thing for the survival of individuals.
Some people might raise Moore’s objection: but so what if caring about other people has evolutionary advantages? What is the link between such advantages and morality? What makes it good? I’m not much interested in this objection, since it makes sense only if you assume there is some pure form of morality. Seems unlikely to me.
But here’s a more interesting objection: are we beholden in any way to continue caring about others, or to continue to foster coordination and cooperation? Well, no, I would say — except for the fact that all or most of us actually do have an interest in living in a stable society, counting on sympathy from others, etc. It’s only our actual interests that give us any reason to further promote the “virtues” that evolution has coached us toward promoting. And if our interests change, so too will our virtues. But it’s hard, at least right now, to see the advantages of coordination and cooperation fading away. (Unless I get that Iron Man suit.)
This general approach ties in well with what I’ve been reading about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Menand’s book. The Civil War taught Holmes that certainty leads to violence, and so he became skeptical of ideologies, moral certainties, and all isms — except, I guess, for his own certainty that war is unspeakably horrible. You might see connections to Vonnegut here; but actually Holmes ends up far colder. He must have seen the job of gov’t, and law, as trying to stave off violence that inevitably comes about, since people can’t help feeling certain. It’s sort of the job of a herd manager: these animals will end up wanting to kill each other, so try to sort things out ahead of time to keep carnage to a minimum. What the animals believe is almost beside the point; they’ll all end up adopting the beliefs of the less-losing side anyway, eventually. His opinions on social issues brought before the Supreme Court weren’t determined by any high ideals, but from a colder, distant, managerial perspective. He famously agreed with a state claiming the right to sterilize mentally-deficient adults, saying that three generations of idiots were enough.
And, of course, I hear Nietzsche in the background. The task is to legislate our moral ends, in full cognizance of our evolutionary past and the constraints of the present. But the Darwinian/Holmesian thinking lacks the Nzean end of producing some sort of heroic individual. We have to get not only beyond good and evil, but also Prussian “Big-Man”-ism.
I’ve been thinking about Michael Drake’s post over at Strange Doctrines on Nihilistic Meaning. As anyone who knows me would suspect, I’m very skeptical of a human life being meaningful in virtue of playing some role in a deity’s big plan. (Indeed, that seems to me a recipe for absurdity.) So I usually fall back on the idea that (as one respondent puts it) life’s value comes from within a life, not in relation to some other person’s plans. So finding happiness, enjoying art, blah blah blah, makes a life meaningful to the person living it.
But then I think about Apollo and Achilles. Apollo, as in the above picture. I know that homo sapiens are merely a gnat’s fart in the big scheme of things, but — pardon me — fuckin’ A! We walked on the moon! In a time when computers used punch-cards! That commands my respect. And I also think of when Achilles was deciding about whether to join the battle at Troy, and Athena (his mom) tells him, basically: you can stay home, and you’ll have a great life loving your children and eating grapes and everything, and you’ll be remembered for a generation or two, and then forgotten entirely; or you can go, die young, and men will sing your song for thousands of years. He decides to go (and Athena was right. Well: she never existed, but Homer was right. Well: Achilles was fictional too, but, bloody hell, it’s the idea I’m after.)
Anyhow, I wonder if my little recipe for micro-meaning (happiness, art, books, friends) is really just a confession that I’m not big enough for Apollo- or Achilles-sized meaning. What if this is the truth: a meaningful life is one that commands species-wide respect, and you ain’t got it in you, bub.
Man, to cosmos: “Do you know who I am?”
Cosmos: “No. Should I?”
Just got back from a conference in Big Sky, MT, where we read and then discussed Emerson and Nietzsche. (The view above is from our hotel window.) It was a great conference. Much of the discussion seemed to center around the notion of liberty — how you get it, according to each philosopher. Views differed widely among the participants. Some thought it is a matter of literary sophistication — so both RWE and Nz were trying to teach us to be better readers. Others thought it all came down to finding or creating your own voice, often or always in opposition to determining forces around you. And others thought that our thinkers never really came to a satisfactory solution. We are hemmed in by hoops of necessity, as RWE put it, and at the same time there is a space for authenticity and self-determination — and, please, don’t press for details. What a delightful way to waste a perfectly good weekend!
Mike raises the following question:
From Nz’s perspective, what was the world like before the death of God? The best answer I have at the moment is The Gay Science #84 the last paragraph. Maybe that’s *way* before the death of God though or maybe that’s basically what it is.
I don’t have GS handy, but I did come across an interesting and relevant notebook entry from 1887:
What advantages did the Christian morality hypothesis offer?
1. it conferred on man an absolute value, in contrast to his smallness and contingency in the flux of becoming and passing away
2. it served the advocates of God to the extent that, despite suffering and evil, it let the world have the character of perfection – including “freedom” – and evil appeared full of sense
3. it posited a knowledge of absolute values in man and thus gave him adequate knowledge of precisely the most important thing.
it prevented man from despising himself as man, from taking against life, from despairing of knowing: it was a means of preservation – in sum: morality was the great antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism.
[This is from Pearson's and Large's Nietzsche Reader, p. 385]
So I take it that, before the death of god, it felt like we were significant, and that was a good survival strategy for staving off despair and suicide. Now the question is whether we can live with the truth, and invent for ourselves some new survival strategy. In this same set of notes, Nz provides the eternal recurrence as such a strategy. He seems to think it’s better than accepting the plain old “you live, you die, that’s it” since that thought makes nothingness the “goal” of the universe, or at least becomes the universe’s prevalent theme. If nihilism is something to be fought against — and for Nietzsche, it was — we need a replacement for God.