Update: See the comments section of this post for further discussion, and Gene Callahan's post on the ThinkMarkets blog for more.
So I've been having a sporadically ongoing argument with a friend of mine about the plausibility of morality, and I think I've gotten to the point now where I'm happy enough with my position to warrant saying something about it here. In order to understand the argument, though, you'll need some background about my friend. So first, I will offer that background, and then explain why I think Vichy's position is reasonable in light of that background. I will then turn to my own position and attempt to show how it can function even without rejecting Vichy's position.
Vichy has Asperger's syndrome, which manifests in her case in a number of ways, notable among which is an apparent incapacity for a certain range of feelings (whether this incapacity is rooted in emotion or some higher cognitive process is not clear). I am no expert in psychology -- especially moral psychology -- and so I haven't been able to understand the consequences of Vichy's condition with as much depth and clarity as I might like. But through speaking with her on a number of occasions I have uncovered two things which I take to be of extreme significance: first, that she is incapable of directly experiencing sensitivity to consequences that obtain for others, and second, that she is incapable of feeling indignation. In light of these two facts about Vichy, it may be unsurprising that she is not a humanist, and that she is a moral nihilist. But some clarification may be in order here in order to establish why I think these are perfectly reasonable positions for her to take.
Humanism is the view that individuals have some sort of intrinsic value such that they deserve to be treated according to certain minimal standards simply because of the kind of thing that they are. As many people have pointed out at least since Hume, it is simply impossible to derive from the objective nature of a human being a categorical normative claim of any sort, much less an entire moral system. And hopefully, it isn't necessary to attempt to demonstrate why the idea of mind- and moral agent-independent "objective moral facts about reality" should be rejected. So, then, the modern humanist needs some other way to establish the intrinsic worth of human beings which does not depend on trying to squeeze an "ought" from an "is."
It seems to me that the most obvious way to do this is to appeal to introspection -- to establish humanism through some claim of intuitive self-evidence. The shortest path to this conclusion is through the phenomenon of sensitivity to others. It is a natural human propensity to experience positive or negative feelings in response to perceiving or conceiving of certain consequences obtaining for other people: if I saw someone savagely beating a child, I would find myself awash in thoroughly terrible emotion -- I would long for the abuse to stop, or even to be somehow negated. And I would not attach these emotions to my personal aesthetic preferences, my perception that the beating was doing more overall harm than good, or any view that the abuser was making a poor decision, given the alternatives available to him. Rather, I would attach the emotions to what I perceived the child to be going through.
If I were to try to give proper credit to the way that I felt, it would not do to merely say that I would prefer the child not be beaten (though surely that would be true); I would naturally appeal to what was done to the child in order to point out what I perceived to be the true source of my distress. And insofar as my psychological disposition powerfully impelled me to believe that the child ought not to be savagely beaten, and insofar as I believed that other people shared my basic psychological disposition, it could be perfectly reasonable for me to think that other people should feel the same way. David Hume captured this sort of idea when, in Chapter 9 of An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals, he wrote:
When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments, in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.
If we think it true that some objects (in the grammatical sense) have the capacity to inspire these sorts of evaluative reactions across people, and that these reactions are rooted in what happens to other people, then it seems like we could find some basis for the view that we are all presuppositionally committed to the idea that there is something wrong with treating people in certain ways -- that people inherently deserve to be according some minimal amount of dignity. For someone to fail to behave this way would seem to demonstrate that they had taken "improper" account of what would happen to the child in deciding whether or not to go through with the beating, and that if they did, then they would be impelled to agree that the beating ought not to happen.
But this approach runs into serious problems when we acknowledge that some people may not feel these same kinds of impulsions. It is not literally true that there is something about what happens to the child that automatically impels all rational beings to feel like that shouldn't be happening. It is, rather, only a normal human reaction to our own capacity for sensitivity that makes us feel this way. My friend Vichy, as I mentioned earlier, lacks the capacity to have that sort of reaction. It will not, then, be coherent for us to argue that based on our psychology, she should feel a certain way about the child being beaten. She simply can't feel that way about the child. So while this approach may go some way in grounding a humanistic attitude for normally functioning humans, it will literally have no bearing on Vichy -- it simply can't.
Another approach to grounding humanism is similarly grounded in our own psychology. Most people naturally think of themselves as having the sort of value required to sustain the humanistic view. This, I take it, is best illustrated by the entirely nature propensity for humans to feel indignation when others treat them with complete disregard for their interests. If someone randomly walks up to me and punches me in the face, I do not merely resent the pain that she has caused me or wonder if that was really the smartest thing for her to have done. I feel that she has treated me unfairly. As was the case in the example of the abused child, this feeling attaches to what happens to me, so that I end up thinking that the fault in the aggressor's action lies in the fact that she did not take "proper" account of what her actions would do to me in deciding whether or not to punch me.
If a person thinks of himself as having this sort of value, then the humanist needs only to point out that others are relevantly like him in order to establish her position. But once again, it should be clear that if someone doesn't feel this way about himself, then this approach will have no force. If someone's reaction to being punched in the face would truly be to merely resent the pain and to wonder about the wisdom of the other person's choice, then we will not be able to appeal to this reaction in order to ground any sort of normative view. And as I said before, Vichy is apparently incapable of feeling indignation. So again, this will make it impossible to ground a humanistic attitude this way for Vichy.
I find myself, therefore, out of bullets. I cannot offer Vichy any grounds for accepting humanism, and I do not find any other moral view plausible. Accordingly, I seem to reach the conclusion that for Vichy, anti-humanistic moral nihilism is not only a coherent position, but actually the only reasonable position for her to adopt. It surely isn't the case that there is objectively something about what happens to the child when beaten, or what happens to you when you are punched in the face, that makes it "improper" to take no account whatsoever of anything that does not happen to matter to Vichy for one reason or another. And there is no reason accessible to her that she should nevertheless believe that people are intrinsically valuable and that there are consequently such things as "morally improper" ways to account for people's interests.
What does this mean, then, for my own humanistic moralism? I seem to be committed to the view that it is literally false. But does that mean that I should be an anti-humanistic moral nihilist? I don't believe so. I will therefore offer an argument in defense of my moralistic humanism that could be appropriately classified as broadly existentialistic and fictionalistic.
It seems to me that the anti-humanistic moral nihilist position seems to entail a sort of egoism. If others have no intrinsic value, and there are no moral reasons for acting in any particular way, then the only thing left would seem to be to act for self-regarding reasons. I think it will be useful to think about this position as arguing that we should do whatever we think will allow us to live a life most in accordance with our own values, with no framework for evaluating the values we choose to pursue that are separate from our own value systems -- I don't know if that's a proper formulation, but hopefully it's close enough.
Where Vichy lacks a capacity for a certain range of emotions and reactions, I do not. I feel discomfort when others are treated without regard for their interests and I feel indignation when I am treated that way. If this is a natural way for my mind to work (and others' as well), then humanistic moralism will provide me with an excellent intuitive tool for knowing how these feelings are going to play out -- a sort of automatic navigation system. And because our reactive responses are attached to our conceptions of things -- my response to thinking about "a child being beaten" is different from my response to thinking about "me thinking from a humanistic moralist perspective about a child being beaten" -- I will only be able to use the humanistic moralist navigation system from within the humanistic moralist mindset.
If humanistic moralism is an effective tool in this sense, then it may be that I would live the better life if I adopted the humanistic moralist perspective. Further, it seems to me that there are other effects of adopting a humanistic moralist perspective that are quite desirable. One of the most valuable, I think, is the attitude of self-worth that comes along with it. It is quite easy to slip from "I have no worth" to "I am worthless," which is problematic for much the same reason as slipping from "The cup is empty" to "There is emptiness in that cup." It's no good to think of oneself as "worthless," and a great way to protect against feeling this way is to think of oneself as "having worth."
Another benefit of adopting the humanistic moralist perspective is the capacity to experience irrational feelings of attachment to people (i.e., in loving relationships and loyal friendships) that would be inaccessible to someone consistently and consciously adopting an egoistic mindset. Where conscious egoism would suggest the virtue of constant personal cost-benefit analysis, it seems to me that we can have better, happier, healthier relationships if we don't constantly evaluate things in this way, and if we instead allow ourselves to slip into a humanistic moralist mindset.
Also beneficial is the mindset which enables me to live in a world full of valuable individuals who are worthy of respect and love, rather than a world full of creatures who can do cool stuff. The same is true of the mindset which allows me to speak to "normal people" without having to translate back and forth between manners of speaking.
If these points are legitimate -- if there are considerable and potentially irreplacable benefits to being a humanistic moralist -- then it could be incompatible with the tenets of the anti-humanistic moral nihilist's egoism for me to adopt anti-humanistic moral nihilistic egoism. In other words, consciously adopting egoism personally would commit me to saying that "I ought to believe that I should do whatever is best for me, even if believing that I should do whatever is best for me would not be best for me." This, I think, would be clearly ridiculous. Accordingly, to the extent that I am capable of maintaining the humanistic moralist perspective, it might be reasonable for me to do so.
And luckily, I am quite capable of doing this. I am here reminded of something that Hume says in section VII of A Treatise of Human Nature:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther.
And so, after laboring to show why anti-humanistic moral nihilism is a reasonable and compelling position for Vichy, I hope to have made it equally clear why I don't believe it to be a reasonable position for me to adopt for myself. Perhaps it will frustrate some people that I am choosing to adopt such blatant fictionalism, but I defy them to come up with any reason that I shouldn't which wouldn't immediately flip around into a reason that I should.