There is a tendency to suppose that ignorance is an unenviable state of affairs, and that it is only the lowly and weak that, in the words of J. S Mill, “prefer to be a pig satisfied than Socrates unsatisfied”. And yet at the same time there is an unmistakable hedonic undertow which like a current in the ocean brings us all to our knees. Socrates is an enigmatic figure who ultimately failed as gadfly to Athens, but whom in the eyes of Mill and other contemporary philosophical figures, died a martyr choosing his own untimely death to a life devoid of moral integrity.
As gadfly to Athens Socrates considered it his divine duty to discombobulate his fellow citizens through a dialectical process of discourse referred to as the maieutic or elenctic method. Discombobulate, how so? Nietzsche may offer some assistance in here.
“Our evaluations. – All actions may be traced back to evaluations, all evaluations are original or adopted – the latter being by far the most common. Why do we adopt them? From fear – that is to say, we consider it more advisable to pretend they are our own – and accustom ourself to this pretense, so that at length it becomes our own nature. Original evaluation: that is to say, to assess a thing according to the extent to which it pleases or displeases us alone and no one else – something excessively rare! But must our evaluation of another, in which there lies motive for our general availing ourselves of his HIS evaluation, at least not proceed from US, be our OWN determination? Yes, but we arrive at it as children, and rarely learn to change our view; most of us are our whole lives long the fools of the way we acquired in childhood of judging our neighbors (their minds, rank, morality, whether they are exemplary or reprehensible) and of finding it necessary to pay homage to their evaluations.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality
Our moral orientation, the values that are like a compass mapping out routes of preference and investment, are given or taken over through an invisible, painless process of indoctrination. This descriptive point concerning the acquisition of morals is, of course, uninteresting in itself. It comes as no great insight that humankind is born only with the propensity or potentiality to be moral, and that differing moralities across communities is constitutive of the evolution of power-relations which when internalized are ossified in human consciousness and adopted as an intractable standard. The interesting bit concerns the process by which a descriptive experience morphs into a thoroughly metaphysical position.
In an excruciatingly diverse world relativism should have no where to hide. And part of the story would have us openly accept the dictum: “different strokes for different folks”! Yet, in endorsing this descriptive form of relativism (but certainly does not establish or prove) the metaethical corollary “there are no objective and universal moral standards” tends to swiftly follow, in turn evoking the normative standard “when in Rome do as the Romans do”.
Intrigued? Stay tuned…