Nietzsche's Immoralism As Rebellion Against The Authoritarian Tendencies Of Moralities

Nietzsche casts himself, quite provocatively, as an “immoralist”.  In this post, I want to make clear what Nietzsche means by this term as a first step towards understanding the exact nature and scope of his hostility to morality.  As should already be apparent to longtime Camels With Hammers readers, I am optimistic about philosophy’s possibilities for determining true standards of value judgment by which we can relatively accurately assess what makes for better and worse moralities.  I also think that moralities are indispensable parts of human lives and societies.  And I think that Nietzsche would ultimately agree with me on all these points.

But before I can spell out Nietzsche’s constructive attitudes about how there can be true judgments in the realm of values and how we could create moralities of any value, we must make sense of what it is he means to tell us about himself and about morality when he refers to himself as an immoralist.  So that is what I want to begin to do with in this post.

In the preface to Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, at the beginning of section 3, Nietzsche writes:

Hitherto, the subject reflected on least adequately has been good and evil: it was too dangerous a subject.  Conscience, reputation, Hell, sometimes even the police have permitted and continue to permit no impartiality; in the presence of morality, as in the face of any authority, one is not allowed to think, far less to express an opinion: here one has to–obey! As long as the world has existed no authority has yet been willing to let itself become the object of criticism. and to criticise morality itself, to regard morality as a problem, as problematic: what?  has that not been–is that not–immoral?

Nietzsche refers to morality here in the singular, as though it were simply one thing, even though he knows quite well that there are numerous moralities.  When talking thus about morality, i.e., as though it were a monolithic entity, I interpret him primarily as taking the stance of a dissident under the reign of a specific morality which wants to be, and is assumed by most to be, “morality itself”.  But Nietzsche does not think it is all that can or ought to be considered “morality”.  To this effect, he writes in Beyond Good and Evil, section 202:

Morality in Europe today is herd animal morality—in other words, as we understand it, merely one type of human morality beside which, before which, and after which many other types, above all higher moralities, are, or ought to be, possible.  But this morality resists such a “possibility,” such an “ought” with all its power: it says stubbornly and inexorably, “I am morality itself, and nothing besides is morality.”

So the idea that there is only one kind of morality or that a specific morality can be “morality itself” is actually false, according to Nietzsche.  It is also not the case that Nietzsche is against all moralities—he clearly makes the normative judgment that “higher moralities” ought to be possible.  This means that Nietzsche thinks they would be a good thing that should be brought about.  This argument about what to be can itself be taken as evidence that Nietzsche’s “immoralism” is not an abandonment of all normative or “moral” judgments.  What he is attacking is a specific kind of morality which like an authoritarian ruler insists on never being questioned but only obeyed, and insists upon being seen as “morality itself”.

So, in the original text we are considering (Daybreak 3) Nietzsche adopts the perspective of someone under this authoritarian morality’s rule and who is writing for readers who accept this morality’s rule as well, and he notes that according to the way this morality functions, all questioning and dissent are morally forbidden and, so, according to its standards genuine, critical reexamination of it is “immoral”.  So Nietzsche, in open defiance of such oppressive strictures on investigation and reevaluation, takes this label of “immoral” as a point of pride and provocation.   If questioning the dominant morality is immoral, he will be an immoralist.

In fact, Nietzsche does not think that that questioning received moral precepts is actually a “wrong” or “bad” thing.   He does not actually accept the full legitimacy of the morality which judges him “immoral” for questioning it.   So Nietzsche’s immoralism is not a call to do whatever one genuinely thinks is wrong or bad according to one’s own best reasoned moral judgments.  He is not saying, “Determine what you think is right or good and do the opposite!”  On the contrary, immoralism means being willing to be perceived as immoral for daring to challenge false, dominant moral norms and, therein, challenging the very assumption of those norms’ absolute authority.

Since people regularly conflate their particular moral judgments with morality itself, whenever one promotes an opposing value to one widely held to be moral, one risks being accused of attacking morality itself and the authority of all moral rules whatsoever.  One risks being accused of being an immoralist.  Nietzsche accepts the mantle as a challenging affront to the authoritarian character of morality which challenges its legitimacy.

Implicit in all of this, Nietzsche is targeting “morality” as a powerful institution, not merely as a conceptual ideal.  He thinks of morality as not the merely a referee in struggles for power but as a power player itself.  And specifically he thinks of morality as a tyrannical power which cowers people from challenging itself and which wrongly impresses upon people absolute prohibitions and absolute commands.

If other Enlightenment moral philosophers, like Kant, are correct and morality ideally should be based on autonomy and reason, then it is morally scandalous and the height of all hypocrisies to the extent that Nietzsche is correct and in actual practice moralities dominate individuals and cultures in ways that are heteronomous and which actively discourage vigorous moral questioning and openness to changes of values.

I think this is the core meaning of Nietzsche’s paradoxical charges that “Morality is just as ‘immoral’ as any other thing on earth” (The Will to Power 308) and that “morality is itself a form of immorality” (The Will to Power 308) and that “The victory of a moral ideal is achieved by the same ‘immoral’ means as every victory: force, lies, slander, injustice.” (The Will to Power 306).

Moralities as institutional powers can be critiqued for how they live up to moral ideals in their implementation.  Do moralities (or those actual people and institutions which enforce them) impose and leverage their authority through lies, bullying, or any other manners of coercive force?  Insofar as they do they are probably hypocritical on their own terms and they are definitely immoral on the terms of the Enlightenment autonomy-based morality which Nietzsche implicitly judges them against repeatedly throughout his writings.

There is more to say about the topics above.  In particular, I should note that in the above discussion, I realize did not actually address any of the texts where Nietzsche specifically uses the term “immoralist” or identifies himself directly as an immoralist or explicitly defines his usages of the term for himself.  Those texts will complicate the meaning of the term further and in future posts I hope to do justice to those complexities.

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.

  • John M.

    Hi Daniel,

    This is my reading of Nietzsche on morality and it’s so nice to see you interpret him in this way with such clarity and so succinctly. I look forward to your posts when (perhaps) you write about Nietzsche’s claim that rigorously honest atheists are “the most spiritual men [and woman] of today.” (Example, Genealogy of Morals)

    • Daniel Fincke

      Hey, thanks, John! Hopefully you will find more of my unpacking of what’s going on in Nietzsche’s moral philosophy persuasive too.

      As for the praise for the honest atheist—of course I appreciate such emphases. Chapter 3 of my dissertation was devoted to exploring the dynamics by which morality ironically overcomes itself through truthfulness (and, more specifically, we might say the atheist’s truthfulness). The challenge though is also to deal with Nietzsche’s charge that even the freethinkers still have faith insofar as they believe in truth (which makes me cringe at his use of the word faith in such a misleading way). That text is not that hard to contextualize so it does not undermine the kind of things which you just quoted which he says elsewhere, but it is still a moderation of his praise for atheists that needs to be mentioned and allowed to temper.


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