Draft review of The Virtue Ethics of Hume & Nietzsche, by Christine Swanton

This book has a noble aim: to free virtue ethics from the grip of the neo-Aristotelianism that limits its scope in contemporary Anglophone philosophy. Just as there are deontological views that are not Kant’s or even Kantian, just as there are consequentialist views that are not Bentham’s or even utilitarian, so, Swanton contends, there are viable virtue ethical views that are not Aristotle’s or even Aristotelian. Indeed, the history of both Eastern and Western philosophy suggests that the majority of normative ethics has focused primarily on understanding and explaining the nature and development of virtue and vice. There are other alternatives to Aristotle (Mengzi springs to mind), but they’re good places to start, as has already been demonstrated for both Hume (Erin Frykholm, “A Humean Particularist Virtue Ethic,” Philosophical Studies, 172(8) [2015]: 2171-91) and Nietzsche (Mark Alfano, “The Most Agreeable of All Vices,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21(4) [2013]: 767-90).

In the meta-ethical introduction, Swanton argues that interpreting a philosopher’s normative perspective is a matter of mapping the most important ethical properties and relations in that philosopher’s writings. Such a map always abstracts certain details, but is answerable to expectations of accuracy, adherence to authorial intent, and helpfulness to both the interpreter and the interpreter’s audience. In the interest of accuracy, Swanton is keen to show that the views she attributes to Hume and Nietzsche satisfy the “Constraint on Virtue,” according to which, “What counts as a virtue is constrained by an adequate theory of human growth and development” (8). This seems to be Swanton’s quick-and-dirty version of Flanagan’s (1991, p. 32) Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism, which says, “Make sure when constructing a moral theory or projecting a moral ideal that the character, decision processing, and behavior prescribed are possible, or are perceived to be possible, for creatures like us” (Owen Flanagan, Varieties of Moral Personality [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991], 32). In the case of Hume, this is done by mining Paul Bloom’s Just Babies (New York: Penguin, 2013) for empirical support. For Nietzsche, Swanton relies primarily on Freud’s dissident discipline, Alfred Adler (The Neurotic Constitution, trans. B. Glueck and J. E. Lind [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1918]; Understanding Human Nature, trans. W. B. Wolfe [London: Allen & Unwin, 1932]), a somewhat odd choice. Chapter 2 argues that both Hume and Nietzsche are response-dependence virtue ethicists, according to whom ethical properties are “open to certain responses or construals in responders having appropriate sensibilities, and these responses or construals are what make the property intelligible as an ethical property” (23-4). Her commitment to respecting authorial intent is less clear, as I explain below. Whether her maps are helpful depends on the reader. This one, at least, did not find them so. The book concludes with Swanton’s reflections on the prospects for a Humean “virtue ethics of love” and a Nietzschean “virtue ethics of becoming.” In this review, I focus on the six central chapters, which will be of most interest to potential readers.

The chapters on Hume explore the compatibility of his sentimentalism with virtue ethics (chapter 3), the compatibility of his view of justice with virtue ethics (chapter 4), and the variety of virtue ethics he’s best understood as espousing (chapter 5). In chapter 3, Swanton argues that Hume’s sentimentalism is corrigible in several ways, making it immune to standard objections, such as the charge that sentimentalism cannot distinguish between what someone is merely disposed to (dis)approve and what merits (dis)approval. First, only agents who possess a moral sense (especially the sentiment of benevolence) are capable of responding emotionally in such a way as to constitute virtue (through approbation) and vice (through disapprobation). Second, even these select few may err; only those with an “authoritative” moral sense tend to respond with apt emotions (47). Third, even among those with authoritative moral senses, errors may crop up when “the cooperation of the reason of the understanding” is not forthcoming or when, despite such cooperation, “there can be mistaken views about for example ‘tendencies’ of traits in certain conditions” (47). In sum, “for Hume what makes a trait a virtue at the thinnest level of description is that through properties possessed it is naturally fitted to be a virtue” (57). Swanton’s underuse of commas here and elsewhere is surpassed only by her overuse of inverted commas in the chapters about Nietzsche, of which more below.

Chapter 4 begins with a footnote praising the notorious moral imbecile, Ayn Rand (70), who lurks like Baba Yaga in the book’s back matter. In this chapter, Swanton contends that the artificial virtue of justice is recognizable even within Hume’s sentimentalist framework. She goes on in chapter 5 to explore various sorts of traits that Hume countenances, and which mark him as an ethicist who gives special emphasis to virtues that are appropriate or fitting even though they do not tend to produce optimal consequences. These include modes of expression of bonds of love “fitting or appropriate to the merits of the valuable qualities of the” beloved (95), bonds of love “proper to forms of blood relationship” (97), bonds of reciprocity (98), and bonds of amity (98). In addition, these virtues include dispositions to expressions of pride (100), joy in what is valuable in one’s local material and social environment (102), realistic optimism (103), respect for persons and their property (104), and respect for “legitimate” hierarchies (105) such as the English monarchy (!).

The chapters on Nietzsche explore the compatibility of his alleged egoism with virtue ethics (chapter 6), the compatibility of his existentialism with virtue ethics (chapter 7), and the variety of virtue ethics he’s best understood as espousing (chapter 8). What is “virtuous egoism,” (111)? Nietzsche’s own texts are of no help in answering this question. Despite Swanton’s inverted commas, he never uses the phrase “tugendhaften Egoismus,” even in his unpublished writings. Instead, Swanton refers to Tara Smith (Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and provided this gloss: “The fundamental shape of an individual’s life ought to be one where her own life is affirmed by him or her [sic.]” (115).

Surely a senior philosopher like Swanton would not make such a seemingly egregious misattribution without some textual evidence. The one passage she is able to cite in favor of this interpretation is HH 95 on the “morality of the mature individual.” Here, Nietzsche says, “To make of oneself a complete person, and in all that one does to have in view the highest good of this person – that gets us further than those pity-filled agitations and actions for the sake of others.” In her attempt to make the Randian pill easier to swallow, Swanton plays up the distinction between maturity and immaturity. The problem is that HH is not one of Nietzsche’s mature works, and he rarely uses “reifen” or its cognates in later works. When he does so, it is usually to express an agricultural metaphor of ripeness for picking (e.g., Z II “Blessed Isles”) – never, so far as I can tell, to characterize an ideal of egoism. (You can check for yourself at www.nietzschesource.org.) Swanton also tries to make hay of D 516, but in this passage Nietzsche merely argues that a character with benevolence and self-hatred is not as good as a character with benevolence towards both self and other – hardly a revolutionary proposal.

Such basic errors are shockingly common in this book. On page 33, Swanton equates the “man of the future” from GM II.25 (Zarathrustra) with the “man of the future” from BGE 203 (“the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims”). She claims that Nietzsche holds that the “‘convalescent’ masses should self-overcome,” illegitimately transferring his self-characterization as a convalescent to the general public, whom he never described in such terms (117). She quotes Nietzsche as diagnosing the “Christian neurosis” despite the fact that he never uses this phrase (120). Perhaps she has in mind his description of the “religiöse Neurose” in BGE 47 or GM III.21? She provides no citation, so we cannot be sure. She claims that Nietzsche speaks “often” of the “will to memory of the sovereign individual” (122). He does not. The sovereign individual is discussed precisely once, in GM II.2, but the “will to memory” is not ascribed to him; indeed, the phrase “Wille zur Speicher” is not attested in Nietzsche’s entire corpus (including his unpublished writings), nor is “Wille zur Erinnerung” or “Wille zur Gedächtnis.” Swanton claims that “Many writing on Nietzsche think that for Nietzsche (a) we have a ‘basic instinct’ for cruelty and (b) that it is healthy for this instinct to be manifested” (142). The secondary literature suggests otherwise, insofar as the only author to consider attributing this view to Nietzsche is Swanton herself (“Nietzsche and the Virtues of Mature Egoism,” in Simon May (ed.), Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Critical Guide [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011], 292; “Nietzsche and the ‘Collective Individual’,” in Julian Young (ed.), Individual and Community in Nietzsche’s Philosophy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015], 184). Brian Leiter (Nietzsche on Morality [New York: Routledge, 2002], 231-2) comes close, but he only endorses (a), not (b). Swanton also attributes to Nietzsche the diagnosis of the vice of “justice to excess” (164)), a phrase and concept he never employs.

I could multiply these examples ad nauseam, but I will finish with the most breathtaking – Swanton’s attempt to reconcile Nietzsche’s valorization of forgetting with his doctrine of the eternal recurrence (162). It goes something like this:

DEMON:           The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!

SWANTON:      Fuhgeddaboudit!

According to Donnie Brascoe, one meaning of ‘fuhgeddaboudit’ is that something is the greatest thing in the world. It’s a bit more Brooklyn than, “du bist ein Gott und nie hörte ich Göttlicheres!” but it’s an approximation. According to Christine Swanton, “Forget it!” is Nietzsche’s life-affirming response to contemplating the eternal recurrence. Evidently, though, she has Brascoe’s fifth, purely disquotational gloss of the phrase in mind. One is, says Swanton, “enjoined not to dwell on things.” She contends that Nietzsche advocates merely “affirmation of one’s life as a whole,” not “affirmation of each detail of one’s life.” Can this be his view? In GS 341, he is at pains to emphasize that every single detail – whether pleasurable, painful, or trivial – would be repeated, right down to the spider in one’s room. And in BGE 56, he describes the life-affirming character as “shouting insatiably da capo” because he has “not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is” but wants it all to be repeated, down to the last detail. Of Swanton’s misinterpretation, then, I can only say, in Brasco’s second sense of the phrase, “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Reading this book, one gets the impression that Swanton has not so much studied Nietzsche as eavesdropped on a couple of teenage boys shooting the shit after reading Atlas Shrugged. Snippets of his ideas are glued together haphazardly with common-sense bromides, poorly disguised tenets of Rand, and unhelpful allusions to Adler and other individual psychologists. The resulting pastiche is a chimera: prosthe Swanton opithen te Rand messos te Adler.

Nietzsche himself provides a potential explanation for Swanton’s interpretive incompetence in BGE 192, where he remarks that the “reader today” does not read “all of the individual words (let alone syllables) on a page – rather he picks about five words at random out of twenty and ‘guesses’ at the meaning that probably belongs to these words.” This idea was later taken up by Merleau-Ponty (The Phenomenology of Perception [Psychology Press, 1945 / 2002]) and has been empirically corroborated by research in neuroscience, where some regard perception as “externally guided hallucination” (Roger Shepard, “Ecological Constraints on Internal Representation: Resonant Kinematics of Perceiving, Imagining, Thinking, and Dreaming,” Psychological Review 91 [1984]: 417-47, 436). Nietzsche was more skeptical than those who succeeded him about the prospects of such external guidance. In the same passage, he infers that “we make up the major part of the experience and can scarcely be forced not to contemplate some event as its ‘inventors.’ All this means: basically and from time immemorial we are – accustomed to lying.” And so it is with Christine Swanton’s latest book, The Virtue Ethics of Hume & Nietzsche. It’s hard to imagine – or even hallucinate – an interpretation less true to its original texts than this.

Should you read this book if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Randian? Fuhgeddaboudit!