August 7th, 2008

Hume and Nietzsche: Moral Psychology (short essay)

Moral Psychology is the study of the human mind as it relates to morality and moral conduct. A moral psychologist typically provides us with an analysis of such concepts as agency, action, character, selfhood and freedom, amongst others.

David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are both moral psychologists in this sense. My aim here is twofold: to describe their basic answers to moral-psychological questions, and to explore the extent to which Nietzsche can be said to be distinct from Hume. This is a troubling question for anyone interested in Nietzsche as an original thinker, for both surface and depth readings reveal that his moral psychology has a strikingly Humean character. It is also a potentially troubling issue for "neo-Humeans", who constitute the numerical majority in analytic ethical philosophy. For if Nietzsche is close to Hume, then Hume is also close to Nietzsche, and Humeans may not be able to avoid confronting distinctly Nietzschean doubts about morality and social conduct.

1. Metaphilosophical Motivation

Both Hume and Nietzsche1 advocate a kind of naturalism. This is a weak naturalism, for it does not seek to give science authority over philosophical inquiry, nor does it commit itself to a specific ontological or metaphysical picture. Rather, it seeks to (a) place the human mind firmly in the realm of nature, as subject to the same mechanisms that drive all other natural events, and (b) investigate the world in a way that is roughly congruent with our best current conception(s) of nature:

Human minds are not strangers in nature, but inextricably parts of it. (Hume, T 1.2.1)

To translate man back into nature, to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations that have been scrawled over homo natural to see to it that man stands today... deaf to the siren-songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have been piping at him all too long: "you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!" (Nietzsche, BGE 230)

Furthermore, the motivation for this general position is common to both thinkers. Hume and Nietzsche saw old rationalist/dualist philosophies as both absurd and harmful: such systems were committed to extravagant and contradictory metaphysical claims which hinder philosophical progress. Furthermore, they alienated humanity from its position in nature—an effect Hume referred to as "anxiety"—and underpinned religious or "monkish" practises which greatly accentuated this alienation. Both Nietzsche and Hume believe quite strongly that coming to see ourselves as we really are will banish these bugbears from human life.

To this end, both thinkers ask us to engage in honest, realistic psychology. "Psychology is once more the path to the fundamental problems," writes Nietzsche (BGE 23), and Hume agrees:

the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, is to leave the tedious lingering method, which we have hitherto followed, and instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier, to march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself." (T Intro)

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1 Nearly any substantial reading of Nietzsche is controversial, and I am aware that the 'naturalist' reading is opposed by such diverse thinkers as Richard Rorty, Alex Nehemas and Gilles Deleuze. However, there is more than enough textual support in Nietzsche for both pro- and anti-naturalist readings, so my account may be usefully viewed as a Nietzschean moral psychology rather than an excavation of what Nietzsche himself thought. In my opinion, such an excavation is not possible with the texts we now possess.
2 Alasdair MacIntyre calls the offering of such an explanation "the activity of unmasking... that most characteristically modern of activities." (After Virtue 71-72) MacIntyre's work stands as an unmatched critique of Hume's role in the creation of our modern "emotivist" culture, with its associated fact/value dichotomy. This is the culture which has ceased to believe that its evaluations refer to anything other than the contingent drives of its members: in Nietzsche's terms, a culture which has killed God.
3 The German term here is frei Geist. This is important because the term "spirit" has religious overtones in our language. But geist is not translatable into a single term, it also strongly connotes mind and, crucially, motivation.