Nietzsche observes, with great hope, that a new world of philosophy stands to be discovered just as the Americas was discovered. Or to paraphrase Lisa Simpson, maybe philosophers will discover something millions of people had already experienced:
What is needful is not pity for them. We must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it. What these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins; what is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword. And new philosophers. The moral earth, too, is round. The moral earth, too, has its antipodes. The antipodes, too, have the right to exist. There is yet another world to be discovered—and more than one. Embark, philosophers!
It’s tempting to make fun of this quest, noting that philosophers haven’t just failed to discover new continents since Nietzsche, they’ve lost the ability to navigate. But in fact there are philosophers who agree with what Nietzsche has to say here and share his optimism. Derek Parfit, for example, writes in conclusion of Reasons and Persons:
There could clearly be higher achievements in the struggle for a wholly just world-wide community: And there could be higher achievements in all of the Arts and Sciences. But the progress could be greatest in what is now the least advanced of these Arts or Sciences. This, I have claimed, is Non-Religious Ethics. Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.
In America, as Charles Taylor has noted, you cannot argue that there is a majority who openly admit a disbelief in God. But my theory is that this is not the greatest impediment to the new ethical optimism of Nietzsche and Parfit. The real barrier to ethical progress is the widespread belief that values are determined solely and purely by economic markets. As Michael Sandel noted in his book The Moral Limits of Markets:
Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Auctioning seats in the freshman class to the highest bidders might raise revenue but also erode the integrity of the college and the value of its diploma. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens but corrupt the meaning of citizenship. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
The values of the marketplace have taken the nihilism that Nietzsche described to heights that even he could not comprehend. Slavoj Zizek describes our current predicament beautifully when discussing last summer’s riots in London:
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
I contend that we have reached an age far more dangerous that Nietzsche envisioned — one where religious values are still de jure arbiters of society, while the de facto morality has become the market itself. At the moment we’re engaged in a U.S. Presidential election that has the feel of something important, yet is far too small for our times. Does anyone doubt that no matter who wins this race (and God help us if it all ends much like the 2000 race) that the opponents will merely take to the streets in 2013? And these street protests will have nothing to do with policy, they will just be more spasms of anger, more meaningless outbursts.
In an age when economic growth is considered the only genuine good — and that good is in limited supply and skewed heavily to a tiny fragment of society — what other choice does the public have? Yes, embark philosophers on this new moral continent. But don’t fool yourselves thinking that religious morality is your foe. Your real enemy is the idea that everything has a price.