Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood:
Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative and one of which is positive.
The negative motivation arises from moral dogmatism. There are those who wish to dogmatically assert their own values without worrying that they may not be as universal as one might suppose. For instance, this is often the case with religious fundamentalists who worry that secular society is increasingly unmoored from proper values and traditions. Ironically, the dark underside of this moral dogmatism is often a relativistic epistemology. Ethical dogmatists do not want to be confronted with the possibility that it is possible to challenge their values because they often cannot provide good reasons to back them up.
The positive motivation was best expressed by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American Mind. In this work, Bloom argues that American students during the 1980s increasingly bought into multiculturalism, relativism, and a certain cultural nihilism because they did not believe there were any universal values which should be propagated and defended. Bloom worried that if this trend towards a kind of hip cultural nihilism continued, it would eventually lead to a tremendous flattening of our ‘selves’ across society. Bloom wasn’t an ethical dogmatist who was unhappy that his students didn’t hold to his particular set of values. As he consistently observed, being critical and reflective about values which are presented as universal is part of the philosophical tradition dating back to Socrates. What made Bloom unhappy was that these students rejected the whole idea that there could be any universal values.
These issues are all of considerable philosophical interest. In what follows, I want to press on just one issue that is often missed in debates between those who believe there are universal values, and those who believe that what is ethically correct is relative to either a culture or to the subjective preference of individuals. The issue I wish to explore is this: even if we know which values are universal, why should we feel compelled to adhere to them? Put more simply, even if we know what it is to be good, why should we bother to be good? This is one of the major questions addressed by what is often called meta-ethics. It was best explored by the nineteenth century British philosopher Henry Sidgwick, who called the issue of why we should be good the “profoundest problem in ethics.” However, before discussing his work in The Methods of Ethics, it is worth looking at a few of Sidgwick’s venerable predecessors who were also aware of this problem.
The Meta-Ethical Problem
To my mind, the first premonitions of the ‘profoundest problem’ can be found in the work of David Hume, who observed that we can never move readily from scientifically understanding facts about the world to determining what values people should hold to. This posed a serious problem for future scientifically minded ethicists, as it became clear that just knowing objective facts about human nature and desires couldn’t necessarily lead us to a clear set of ethical values. This problem was picked up and reformulated by Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher who was awoken from his “dogmatic” philosophical slumber upon reading Hume.
Kant argued, very powerfully, that a human being’s innate practical reason begets a universal set of “moral laws” which any rational person knows they must follow. This includes his famous imperative to “act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will it to be universal law.” But Kant also observed that there was a major problem. While we might know that these “moral laws” apply universally, why should we feel compelled to obey them? Why not, instead, give in to “radical evil” and simply will great wrongs if it is to our advantage and we know we can get away with it? Kant’s answer was that we must postulate a belief in God and the immortality of the soul in order to get around this meta-ethical problem. This was problematic since, as Kant had already established in his Critique of Pure Reason, many of the traditional arguments for God’s existence didn’t seem tenable. So Kant argued that we simply must push the doubts of pure reason aside to make way for “faith.” This answer was obviously unsatisfactory to later secular or atheistic philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who outright rejected belief in God as a stabilizing force for our moral beliefs. For Nietzsche, the answer to “why should we be good” is negative. There are no intrinsic reasons to buy into even plausible moral beliefs, and indeed, one of the weaknesses in our civilization is our unwillingness to let go of Judeo-Christian values, even given the “death of God.”
Henry Sidgwick and the Profoundest Problem in Ethics
This brings us to Henry Sidgwick’s clarification of the problem. Sidgwick was not a comprehensive philosopher in the vein of Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Most of what he is remembered for is exclusively in the realm of ethics and meta-ethics. Here he made a profound contribution to the problem of ‘Why be good?’ Though not necessarily an atheist, he recognized that Kantian type appeals to God were no longer tenable. What we needed was something more grounded.
As a classical utilitarian, Sidgwick argued that it is happiness that we should take as the motivation for being good. As Mill had put it earlier, in the absence of God or some more metaphysically abstract concept of intrinsic value, happiness seems like the one thing which any rational person would agree is simply good in itself. But Sidgwick, as a rigorous analyst always concerned to look at a problem from every angle, quickly surmised that there was a problem. On the one hand, it seemed clear that if happiness was what was intrinsically good, individuals should focus ourselves on impartially maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. As he put it late in the book:
I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may so) of the Universe, than the good of any other … And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally,—so far as it is attainable by my efforts—not merely at a particular part of it. From these two rational intuitions we may deduce, as a necessary inference … that each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own.
This would suggest that we must, at times, even put aside our own private desires and look at maximizing happiness from the impartial “point of view of the universe” as it is often called. But, Sidgwick then observed that this was problematic. While maximizing happiness impartially seems like the best possible ethical outcome, what might motivate individual actors to put aside their private interests when they conflicted with this impartial goal? This can be put even more starkly. If we can recognize that our own happiness would mean refraining from impartially making the world better, or even making it worse, why should we feel motivated to try to do good? Why not do evil if this makes us happy, we can get away with it, and happiness is all the matters to us intrinsically. This problem is Sidgwick’s “profoundest problem in ethics” and why he argued that there would always be a dualism in ethical reasoning between our interest in our own satisfaction and our interest in being impartially good.
This problem obviously has special bearing for Utilitarians, since for them happiness is the primary moral concern. But I also think it weighs heavily on almost any contemporary secular moral theory. This is because each of them emphasizes that human interests, and thus happiness, in some broad sense is the goal of ethics and therefore why we should be good. In essence, we can follow Derek Parfit and say that the ‘profoundest problem in ethics’ is a problem about why it ‘matters’ to be good in a secular context. Even if we know what is universally ethical and good, why should we care?
There have been several answers given to this very deep question. I shall try to provide a brief overview of them in the remainder of this essay, presented as ideal types meant to capture broad swathes of ideas rather than emphasizing specific claims by given authors.
The Self and Self-Interest is What Matters
The first claim about what matters flows from a rejection of the impartial—and by extension the Utilitarian—standpoint. This claim is made by those who argue that what ‘matters’ for morals is only our own private satisfaction. We have no ethical obligation to act well beyond what makes us personally happy or satisfied. Variants of this position can be found in the work of authors like Hobbes, Nietzsche, Robert Nozick, and others.
Stated plainly, this seems extremely close to making ethics purely subjective. What ‘matters’ is what we want, plain and simple. This also flirts closely with nihilism, since what matters to us is just a matter of taste and needn’t be the concern of anyone else. Moreover, it would seem to lead to unacceptable ethical conclusions. If sadism is what makes me happy, those who argue that the self and its satisfactions are all that is important might be inclined to agree that we must simply accept this position.
Not surprisingly, very few major thinkers have outright argued for such a strong position. Some, like Hobbes and Nozick, try to blunt the impact of such a strong subjectivist theory by appealing to our self-interest broadly understood. They argue that rational and self-interested actors will recognize that abiding by certain social rules—such as a rule against murder—will benefit them in the long run by ensuring they are not at risk of an early and violent death. Others, such as Nietzsche, argue that a person truly concerned with their ‘self’ will not pursue vulgar and menial pleasures. Instead they will strive towards aesthetic greatness and overcoming their more mundane interests. These argument are variably convincing, but rest upon an unstable foundation. This is because the appeals to broad self-interest and aesthetics may not be convincing to the sadist who feels they can get away with the pursuit of their wicked pleasures, or who may connect the pursuit of aesthetic greatness with cruelty (as the Nazis did by misinterpreting Nietzsche).
Naturalism and Human Nature
The second claim about what matters is more empirical and seeks to dissolve the profoundest problem by appealing to the science of human nature. Proponents argue that we should use the tools of modern science to assess what human beings want and what their characteristics are, for instance, by looking at evolutionary biology or psychology. We should then develop an ethical framework that meshes with these natural features of the human personality. This framework would be accepted by most normal individuals because it would correspond accurately to our fundamental ‘nature’ as described by the best science available. This is the position broadly adopted by authors like Sam Harris, Richard Rorty, and Steven Pinker.
This naturalistic position has many virtues. Naturalists argue we just need to realistically describe how human beings act and what they are biologically prone to valuing. Then we formalize that as a system of ethics, and most people would accept it. However, there are problems with this naturalistic position. The main one is that it seems to elide Hume’s argument that one cannot satisfactorily move from facts about the world to what values we should accept. To some naturalists this might seem like a pedantic objection. If human nature meshes with this system of values, then who cares if one is being entirely consistent from an abstract philosophical standpoint? But the objection becomes practically more serious when we recognize that it is entirely possible that human beings may not be ‘naturally’ inspired to impartially doing what is good. This is the argument made by those, like Peter Singer, who claim that genetic research indicates that we are generally prone to being selfish and irrational. This implies that our motivation to be good must come from somewhere else, since our ‘nature’ can incline us to do great wrongs.
The Independent Existence of Value
The final claim is that the values which ‘matter’ in some sense exist independently of us. The argument often made is that if values do not in some sense exist in this way, we have no independent reasons to be good when it is necessary to put aside our self-interest, or to act in line with the better angels of our nature rather than giving into our ‘natural’ dispositions to violence and wickedness. In its secular form, the argument is that, in some respects, ethical values come into existence with us but have a logic which is independent of our psychology or interests. In this view, ethical values are rather like mathematical formula. Human beings bring them into existence through developing logical ways of thinking about issues that are important to us. But the inner logical or ethics isn’t subject to our personal whim, any more than we can prefer that 2+2 would equal 5. The most passionate defender of such independent values was the late Derek Parfit.
This position is obviously appealing since it is as far away from subjectivist or cultural relativism and nihilism as a secular person can get. However, it is also problematic because it is very abstract and metaphysically loaded. Indeed, as Parfit implies throughout On What Matters (most notably the sections on Nietzsche), in many respects it is an attempt to give a secular account of what is important that fills the gap left by the death of God. For some, even this echo of theological ethics might be too much to accept in our scientific era.
Matt McManus received his L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland and his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies from York University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC de Monterrey and is writing his first book “Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law” for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter @MattPolProf
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.