Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Zarathustra's Metaethics" accepted by the Canadian Journal of Philosophy

Twenty years ago I found my Dad's old copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and it made me a philosopher. It introduced me to the philosophical question I care about most: does a naturalistic picture of the world include moral value? The book can make young readers less inhibited about wholeheartedly pursuing what they love, and it did that to me too. I stopped aiming to become a scientist and switched to philosophy, despite standard concerns about my future job prospects.

I'm delighted to announce that "Zarathustra's Metaethics" will soon appear in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. The first half of the paper argues that while Nietzsche is an error theorist about morality, he tells us to pursue a nonmoral and subjective kind of value that our passions confer on their objects. This subjectivism is most beautifully expressed by his title character Zarathustra when telling us how to speak of what we value:

"This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need: it shall not be a signpost for me to overearths and paradises. It is an earthly virtue that I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all the reason of all men. But this bird built its nest within me, therefore I love and caress it; now it dwells with me, sitting on its golden eggs."

The second half of the paper derives Nietzsche's conception of virtue from subjectivism. I start with Thomas Hurka's account of how value relates to virtue: desiring the good and being averse to the bad are virtuous, while desiring the bad and being averse to the good are vicious. If we see desire (D) and goodness (G) as positively valenced, and aversion (A) and badness (B) as negatively valenced, a multiplicative relationship emerges -- two negatives (aversion and badness) multiply into a positive (virtue), while one positive and one negative multiply into a negative (vice). Considering these attitudes for each object and summing over all objects gives us the following formula for someone's net virtue (their positive virtue minus their vice):

Σ (D x G + A x B) - (D x B + A x G)

Nietzsche's subjectivism entails that all things are good insofar as they're desired, and bad insofar as we're averse to them. So we can substitute the G's for D's, and the B's for A's. This gives us:

Σ D2 + A2 - 2DA

So virtue is having strong and focused passions, making the first two terms big; and not having both desire and aversion to the same thing as self-denying ascetics do, which would make the last term a big negative. Section 2.1 goes through this slowly, so please look there if you're interested. It's an unusual view of virtue, but the rest of part 2 shows how it fits the unusual things Zarathustra says, and gives us a picture of the Overman as the person with supremely strong and unified passions.

The paper was rejected 13 times. Some referee comments improved the paper, but I also learned the hard way that some Nietzsche scholars don't like math. After my harsh review of a famous scholar's Nietzsche book, I also got some rejections with weird ad hominems. But that's just how it goes. Zarathustra told me to overcome stuff.

I've tried to write the paper in language my teenage self could understand. I'm grateful to the book for what it did to me, and now I can make some of its most beautiful ideas more accessible.