A Brief Overview Of My Dissertation

Nietzsche’s writings on morality are famously provocative and controversial.  His criticisms of morality in both theory and practice are so extensive and rhetorically scathing that many philosophers assume that he can offer little or nothing constructive to moral philosophy.  Additionally, his glorification of the will to power sounds prima facie like a celebration of excessively controlling and potentially violent behavior.  Finally, he presents his ideas so unsystematically that often when particular remarks he makes are recognized to be pregnant with useful possibilities they seem to be stand alone, aphoristic contributions, which nonetheless do not add up to a larger positive, coherent, and consistent ethical system.

In my dissertation, I try to dispel these familiar notions about the nature and worth of Nietzsche’s writings on morality.  I begin by closely reading his texts in order to construct a systematic and dialectical reading of his overall project of undermining Christian, absolutist notions of morality and truth by being absolutistically moral and truthful and showing how these endeavors ironically undermine the ideals that motivate them when followed out to their logical conclusions.

Once I have explored in detail what notions of morality and truth Nietzsche is implicitly working from to accomplish that ironic destruction of absolutism from within, I distinguish and systematize his constructive notions of ethics and honesty that he develops parallel to his performative adoption of absolutist morality and truth as part of his ironic project of undermining them from within.

Finally, and most importantly, once I have finished abstracting Nietzsche’s philosophical positions on numerous topics in ethics, I further develop, revise, and systematize his positions for myself.  I develop my own essentially Nietzschean account of moral psychology and metaethics which (a) argues for important corrections to his actual philosophy, (b) contemporizes some of his arguments which have been vindicated by contemporary psychology and moral philosophy, and (c) develops numerous latent systematic implications of both his ideas and my revisions of them primarily through an engagement with figures and paradigms central to contemporary moral psychology and philosophy.

I argue that when properly understood, updated, and in some places corrected, Nietzsche’s core ideas about human psychology and value provide a framework for more fully understanding the nature and value of duty, virtue, consequentialist thinking, perfectionism, normativity, happiness, and other central features of a good human life.

I show how the will to power, conceived of as self-overcoming and perpetual growth in internal power and complexity, is not just one good among many but is constitutive of the most valuable realizations of all other goods in life, from virtue to duty to happiness.  I work out a theory of the will to power as our fundamental good which both emphasizes intrinsic excellence of self-overcoming as primary while also making space for a realistic, pluralistic flexibility in how different particular cultures can achieve ethically admirable results through differing particular moral codes.

I try to understand the instrumental role that positive moral codes, when sincerely adopted and adhered to as though intrinsic, play in bringing us a range of objectively valuable goods, including and especially the will to power.  The flipside of this work is to show the limits of moralism’s ability to maximally achieve these goods, and how we can go about assessing when and in what ways we should prioritize morality to the expense of other goods and when and in what ways we should be less strictly moral for the sake of fuller overall flourishing.

This account references and develops research by the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt to ascertain and contextualize which of our contingent human concerns function psychologically as the characteristically “moral” ones, which most humans are most disposed to treat as valuable to the point of demanding that we sacrifice other major goods for their sake.   I try to understand what purposes those peculiarly “moral” prioritizations ultimately serve, and in what ways our “moral” mode of prioritizing can overestimate the intrinsic value of the goods it seeks and unduly threaten our abilities to flourish in other areas of deep significance seen to be “non-moral” and unjustifiably trivialized.

In this way, I revive Nietzsche’s “immoralist” suspicion of moralism and am concerned to delimit morality’s influence.  Unlike Nietzsche, however, I do this while systematically laying out an explicit standard of overall intrinsic human goodness and ideal preferences which can provide objective justification for both positive and negative assessments of the moral codes which are so central to human life for powerfully instrumental reasons.  These value priorities are derived from Nietzsche but need to be presented as a constructive ethics and clear, defensible objective value standard if “immoralist” rhetoric of questioning and limiting morality is not to be counter-productively interpreted as simplistic hostility to all morality whatsoever.

Other key features of my account include arguments that (a) overcoming resistance is the highest form of pleasure and the one worth calling “happiness” and that this kind of happiness is worth sacrificing greater quantities of pleasure to attain; (b) what essentially separates a virtuous habit from a vicious one is whether that habit expresses a fundamental power of self-overcoming and growth or whether primarily it betrays weakness; and (c) dutifulness is admirable precisely insofar as it expresses power over the self rather than a spirit of heteronomy.

In this last point (and at several other points in my reformulation of Nietzsche’s ideas), the Nietzschean outlook proves surprisingly hospitable to certain Kantian priorities and judgments.  My account of ethics also follows Nietzsche in rejecting hedonistic utilitarianism and often preferring principle and consistency of virtue in contexts in which these could be sacrificed for base pleasures or an overall increase in total pleasure for the greatest number.

Nonetheless, though, I also follow Nietzsche in being an indirect consequentialist who prioritizes the formation of excellent human beings who manifest powerful self-overcoming to the point that particular moralities and beliefs should be ethically assessed primarily in terms of how they ultimately contribute to cultivating or thwarting such excellence.  This means that in assessing valuable human lives and cultures it is possible that in some cases we can discover that false beliefs or less formally ideal moralities played a constitutive role in creating better human beings than existed in other cultures with more truth and more formally defensible moralities.

Ultimately, this leads us to the conclusion that while ideally we might strive to attain the greatest possible human excellence in conjunction with the truest beliefs and the most defensible particular moral codes, from a more comprehensive ethical perspective, truth or moral consistency do not necessarily lead to better ethical outcomes in every case in reality and so, at least in some past eras and in some hypothetical future scenarios, sometimes have not been ethical necessities worth overriding all other concerns.

Put simply, in the final analysis excellence of self-overcoming is the primary intrinsic good and the worth of all other goods can be weighed with respect to it and any particular good in a particular context might come up short in ultimately serving self-overcoming and be outweighed on at least that occasion.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • David

    Dan,

    I have a question about overall strategy. It seems to me characteristic of defenses of Nietzschean metaethics that the Nietzschean assumes two basic meta-ethical frameworks and concomitant conceptions of moral inquiry: what you call the “absolutizing” approach and the Nietzschean approach. This seems to be Bernard Williams’ approach in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy in that he characterizes all non-Nietzschean approaches to ethics as seeking an “Archimedian point” for ethics. But MacIntyre contends that there are 3 rival versions of meta-ethics and moral inquiry: the absolutizing, which seeks Williams Archimedian point, the Nietzschean which in various ways succeeds in undermining the pretensions of the absolutizing approach, and finally what I think can fairly be called the classical approach. As I see it, the classical approach includes Plato, Aristotle (maybe) Augustine, Aquinas, Taylor, MacIntyre and possibly McDowell and Murdoch. The classical approach does not look for a way to dissolve difficulties for the absolutizing approach arising from such issues as underdetermination of good action with regard to one’s available reason, or what we might call the radical defeasibility of particular good things (which I think is the part of Nietzsche’s view you allude to at the end your post). It has a different conception of the good life in terms of the always continuing perfection of practical reason in the midst of underdetermination and radical defeasibility. (I think the perfection of practical reason plays a structurally parallel role in many of these accounts as self-overcoming as you conceive it does in Nietzsche’s – in fact the core idea for my dissertation on Augustine’s ethics arose from reflection on something Philippa Foot said about Nietzsche.)

    Anyway, there is a proposal on the table that Nietzsche can’t win by lumping the classical tradition in with the Enlightenment absolutizers and then defeating the absolutizers. The flaw in Williams is that he doesn’t recognize this possible problem for his view. Does your dissertation address this kind of objection?

  • santitafarella

    Dan,

    I’m not sure Nietzsche can be made to work with Kant—primarily because Kant presumes something that I understand Nietzsche to reject categorically—a “two-world” hypothesis. Nietzsche, insofar as I understand him, must be understood in the light of historical contingency—not laws (Kantian moral ones or otherwise) that transcend history.

    I’d be curious if you find my post on Nietzsche clarifying to your thesis—or confusing. See it here:

    http://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/what-did-friedrich-nietzsche-take-from-charles-darwin/

    Also, I think you might find Thomas Nagel’s new book valuable. He has in it an essay on Nietzsche.

    —Santi

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  • http://stephenfrug.blogspot.com Stephen Frug

    Will your dissertation be published anywhere? If not, is there any way to read it apart from going to the physical archives of the Fordham library?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      You know, I’m not sure. I should inquire about that. In the meantime, if you write me from a verifiable e-mail address, I can forward you a copy.

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