Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are "Equally Childish"

Recently Joel Marks, a career moral philosopher, concluded that the moral certitude he has felt and argued for his entire career was built as much on faith as many theists’ belief in God is. And in response he swung radically in the opposite direction and came to believe that there can be no rational objectivity in morality, but rather only our feelings. Moral debates cannot be conceived of as being about true and false or absolute right or wrong, but about persuading others to share our feelings.

When I first became an atheist I had a similar swing towards emotivism. It was a combination of the influence of Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche that made me a moral realist again. In several posts, I want to explain how this happened. In this post, I want to zero in on Nietzsche’s equal contempt for both moral absolutism and moral relativism, which was very influential upon me. In this and future posts, I want to explore why he called them both “equally childish”, why I think he was right to do so, and what the implications of this conclusion are in Nietzsche’s thought and in my own.

In The Gay Science, section 345 (as translated by Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro), Nietzsche writes about moralists that they just accept their cultures’ morality and serve as its shield bearers rather than as rigorous critics:

Their usual mistaken premise is that they affirm some consensus among people, at least among tame peoples, concerning certain moral principles, and then conclude that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me–or conversely, they see that among different peoples moral valuations are necessarily different and infer from this that no morality is binding—both of which are equally childish.

The mistake of the more subtle among them is that they uncover and criticize the possibly foolish opinions of a people about their morality, or of humanity about all human morality–opinions about its origin, its religious sanction, the myth of the free will and such things–and then think they have criticized the morality itself. But the value of the injunction “Thou Shalt” is still fundamentally different from and independent of such opinions about it and the weeds of error that may have overgrown it–just as surely as the value of a medication for someone sick is totally independent of whether he thinks about medicine scientifically or the way an old woman thinks about it. A morality could even have grown out of an error, and the realization of this fact would not as much as touch on the problem of its value. Thus no one until now has examined the value of that most famous of all medicines called morality; and for that, one must begin by questioning it for once. Well then! Precisely that is our task.

Nietzsche here specifies that his task is not simply to expose the psychological and historical contingencies that make for different moralities, but to question moralities for their objective functional value. Exposing that a particular morality comes from an erroneous, mythical tradition does not by itself tell us that that morality is worthless just because it has traditionally been falsely conceived. Similarly exposing the psychological ways that we form moral concepts does not invalidate their claims to objective value. Neither does showing the historical and cultural processes by which different moralities arise and contrast with each other tell us that each morality is of equal value.

In this text, Nietzsche does not lay out his standards of objective value explicitly, but he clearly thinks there are some–just as there are objective standards for health and sickness. But the objective worth of a morality cannot be assessed in terms of whether they are error free in their current formulations or by whether they were initially forged in a truthful or, even, morally approvable way. The only thing that matters is their current, actual functional value in objective terms, and their potential functional value in objective terms.

I think the use of the word “childish” is apt because children lack experience and without experience, their perspectives are limited. With increased age, increased experience, and, hopefully, a resulting increased maturity, we can start to understand how something may be true in one respect while false in another or good in one respect while false in another.

We may come to understand that one culture’s morality may function objectively well for them, even if they are nearly completely deceived in their explicit attempts to understand why their morality is good for them, i.e., how it actually functions to bring them objectively good things. We may also come to understand how moral precepts which would be, on net, damaging in our own culture might, on net, be objectively life-enhancing in another culture. And vice versa.

This is not moral relativism, but moral pluralism.

There is still room on this view to observe that another’s morality does them objective harm in some ways, without having to judge it in terms of one’s own morality. Simply put, we can find that a morality is counter-productive to a group’s flourishing on the grounds of that group’s own objectively determinable good, and not simply because it violates our own moral standards by which we seek the good.

In this way, Nietzsche cautions us against thinking either that a false belief cannot lead to a good morality anyway, or that a false reasoning process cannot lead accidentally to a truth or a good morality anyway.

This is not to say that we should not promote truer ways of thinking and truer beliefs that we might more directly achieve truer, better values. It is not to say that morality requires falsehoods or “noble lies” or religious myths, etc. and we should just leave all those things alone and not mess with a good thing (as many a jittery opponent of explicit atheism who fears what the masses would do were there no god thinks).

Errors are not all created equal. I would argue that even where errors in abstract moral understanding ostensibly accompany admirable and successful moral actions, traditions, and practices, the errors themselves likely did not cause the good values to come about or to be successful, but, rather, the desirable practices arose through natural social dynamics, and then they were approved of by grateful moral feelings, and then they were given a foolish theoretical interpretation and explanation. Since most of the worthwhile moral habits and feelings arose in such an uncontrolled way, through a ground up natural social process, their selection was usually more likely through a kind of natural social selection, rather than a top down invention of confused myth makers.

The erroneous myth-making and the subsequent reinforcement of the values through myths likely usually came second. The values were vindicated in advance by how well they were working and how successfully they were winning over moral feeling as a result of their seeming success in making life better. Good values will continue to vindicate themselves in practice without any errors or myths being necessary. We can join Nietzsche’s project of investigating the true reasons why some values are objectively beneficial (and so, truly good, or “true values”) in some contexts and not in others, without fearing that dispelling myths will make the values they have traditionally supported ineffectual.

Let me end with a final classification note. It was this text and its implications that led me (with the invaluable help of my dissertation adviser, John Davenport) to recognize that Nietzsche was an indirect consequentialist. He was a consequentialist in that he thought moralities were justified by its ability to create some kind (or kinds) of objective good.

Yet, he was an indirect consequentialist because he did not then infer that the only good moralities were explicitly consequentialist ones, nor that we should prescribe explicitly consequentialist moralities in the future. The best moralities are the ones which function in effect to create the greatest good. They are not necessarily ones in which people aim at the greatest good itself.

And, his consequentialism should be clearly distinguished from utilitarianism (which he famously and venomously attacks repeatedly) in that the goods to be maximized according to Nietzsche are the will to power and human excellence, and not simply pleasure. Nietzsche is an indirect consequentialist perfectionist.

For much more detail on this position, as I interpret it from Nietzsche and appropriate it for myself see my post on “My Perfectionist, Egoistic And Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Ohter Kinds)”.

There is much more to say, of course, but this post should suffice to show the key to understanding Nietzsche not as a moral nihilist but as a moral pluralist, who believes that moralities and specific moral values can genuinely differ in their worth and be assessed objectively according to an independent, true standard. One question we will have to explore in a future post is what this objective standard Nietzsche has in mind could possibly be, and whether its existence could be squared with his various attacks on claims to objectivity in values or morality.

But, for now, Your Thoughts?

For more Nietzsche explication and interpretation at Camels With Hammers see the following posts, among many others:

 Nietzsche’s Immoralism As Rebellion Against The Authoritarian Tendencies of Moralities 

A Video Of Me Rambling About Nietzsche

Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers The Idols of Faith”)

A Brief Overview of My Dissertation

On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

and

Mostly True, Not Mostly False

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

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.

  • Mark C.

    Well, this certainly does away with the accusation that Nietzsche was a nihilist. I find your analysis refreshing, Dan.

  • http://lettersfromlevrai.blogspot.com Juno Walker

    Dan -

    This may be fodder for your next post(s), but what are we to make of Nietzsche’s thoughts in “Beyond Good & Evil” where he says that the philosophers of the future will say, ‘My judgment is my judgment’; and also when, in Ecco Homo, he talks about his Zarathustra that ‘Here no prophet is speaking…this is not preaching…’?

    And I believe it was Brian Leiter who described Nietzsche as an ‘esoteric moralist’ in that his goal, and what he values most, is freeing only ‘higher types’ from moralities that harm them and maybe even make their existence or emergence on the world scene impossible?

    I agree with much of Nietzsche’s thought, but there are some troublesome and seemingly contradictory lines of thought in his work.

    Juno

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks Juno, I have written a reply addressing Beyond Good and Evil 43 for you. It will post tomorrow, so be on the lookout!

  • http://tropicalbioinformatics.wordpress.com Sergio

    Wow! I didn’t knew there was a difference between “moral relativism” and “moral pluralism”, this post is really good.

    I don’t think that “will to power and human excellence” are really good things to look forward, the first things I thought was: chinese gymnastic children training. But I think I understand the point, we can set some goods to be maximized (health, happiness… whatever) and then, we can evaluate moral values against those standards.

  • http://www.coises.com/ Coises

    “The best moralities are the ones which function in effect to create the greatest good.”

    Doesn’t this simply beg the question?

    Is not the peculiarity of “ought” — the defining characteristic of a *moral* imperative — inextricably bound with values? What is “better” or “worse,” “good” or “bad” (or “evil”) is necessarily coincident with our sense of “shall and shall not.”

    If one believes that the greatest good is obedience to the will of Allah (and, conveniently, happens to know just what that will is), then the moral conclusions that follow are determined. A different “greatest good” generates Ayn Rand-like values; yet another, hedonism and another national socialism.

    I don’t see how this does anything but kick the can down the road. It’s no easier (and, I suggest, equally impossible “objectively”) to determine what is “greater good” than to determine what is “right” and “wrong.” It seems like a chicken-and-egg problem to me: explain either one and you’d have explained the other, but you can’t explain either without the other. Moral value (“ought,” “good,” “wrong”) is simply irreducible to any universe of discourse that doesn’t presuppose moral value.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No, there are other standards of value that are not distinctively moral or unique to a particular moral system. There are standards of rational ability, physical strength, emotional strength, excellent abilities for self-mastery, social skills, athletic skills, intellectual skills, artistic skills, aesthetic appreciation, various virtues which can be specified with some degree of moral neutrality (courage, for example is courage to some extent independent of moral judgments about its desirability), etc., etc.

      Moral systems, as Nietzsche understands them, are more narrow than that. They are codes of prescriptions which well or badly help us realize, and to have culturally specific forms for the realization of, broader, more universal categories of goods.

      For a defense of the objective existence of value in the universe, beyond moral value but including moral value as a subset, I recommend my own treatments of the subject beginning with my post on how Goodness=Effectiveness and continuing with posts linked at the end of that one.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

      Sure, you can have objective measures of everything from courage to how ticklish one is. But how and why some of those are considered more important than others is a value judgment. Ignoring that doesn’t create an objective morality, but merely hides one’s core convictions and moral premises.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      There will indeed have to be judgment calls about competing value judgments, but still among them there are more things to consider than one’s moral prejudices. Often one’s moral values are justifiable in more objective terms too but then they are not prejudices, per se.

      If you are really interested in digging into my defenses of the idea that we can objectively rank and order values on this more fundamental level, I have written several posts, particularly recent ones, that delve into many of these nuances. Not to dump so many links on you that you don’t read any, here are some of the places where I work out the details of how such objective judgments can be made.

      The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

      How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

      Can Good Teaching Be Measured 

      Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

      Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

      Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

      The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Yes, I’ve seen those. And they all boil down to something like this:

      Goodness, in third-person, unprejudiced, factual terms simply means effectiveness.

      Which is just rhetoric for hiding moral premises. No better, logically, than “man qua man.”

    • quoded

      I think that the problem you point out is precisely the one that Nietzsche is addressing, though. Yes it is impossible to truly critique a morality by judging it with a definition of what is good that is defined within that morality — Nietzsche therefore argues that it must be critiqued as to its functional value. And I see your point that value can be defined different ways as well, but if you define goodness in nonmoral terms, in other words if you can base the idea of what is “good” on more primitive concepts that aren’t explicitly/implicitly moral then it should possible to critique moralities based on that concept.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Exactly.

  • Jim Kursek

    How’s this for philosophy: Do whatever makes you happy while not hurting others.

    How can this kind of talk be interesting to you people? Go outside for crying out loud… Get a life.

    • F

      And you show up to say this? How does that work?

    • http://langcultcog.com/traumatized DuWayne

      Personally I find this interesting because I believe that morality has certain important functions that I believe are hindered by the way most people consider morality. Beyond that, I find it extremely interesting. That you don’t is on you. I am absolutely certain that there are things you find rather interesting that would bore me to tears.

      Yet I don’t mock you – or the interests of others that bore me to tears. I just accept that as humans we are a diverse lot and mostly leave it at that. So why can’t you?

    • http://www.phatjmo.com Justin Zimmer

      Or as the Wiccan’s say: Harm none, do what you will. I dig it, I get it, I live it. But when applied this simple philosophy can get quite tricky. I find these discussions fascinating as I read them on my mobile device outside while having a life :)

  • http://langcultcog.com/traumatized DuWayne

    I have some thoughts, but would like to wait until I have the chance to read where you are going before responding. At this point, it seems that the difference between you and I is actually grounded in what is the utility of morality. I see mortality as serving a specific important function that beyond which, it is essentially meaningless – that as being an arbiter, or governor of our behavior when external consequences simply don’t apply.

    I am rather looking forward to this, though I fear that it is going to take up more of my time than I can rightly afford. Still, it won’t be time wasted…

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I would say the most morally dutiful action is the one undertaken without worry about external consequences. But that does not exhaust the concerns of morality in general. Within any given morality there are expectations. Often people fulfill them simultaneously because they know it is moral and because they fear bad external consequences or desire good ones. It is within that context that some cases arise when one can get away with violating the mutual commitments of morality to one’s (seemingly) clear ultimate advantage. Those are the cases where one’s commitment to be moral in a dutiful way is tested, but that does not mean that that is all moralities themselves are concerned with.

  • usagichan

    I am a little curious – when you say

    I would argue that even where errors in abstract moral understanding ostensibly accompany admirable and successful moral actions

    do you mean that the moral actions are admirable and successful from your moral perspective or from the possibly fundamentally different standard of

    moral precepts which would be, on net, damaging in our own culture might, on net, be objectively life-enhancing in another culture

    ?

    Are you as an individual able to evaluate an action that would be utterly abhorrent according to your own moral precepts, in the cultural context in which it properly resides? In your post about the intrinsic good possible for cultural constructs, you briefly mention the potential for good as a feudal Samaurai – one important and highly moral decision for such an individual would be the decision to accept ritual suicide (note accept – it was more frequently a death sentance than a selfish act). Imagine in this case their are two potential “bad” choices – disgrace which will lead to the impoverishment and destruction of his entire extended family, or acceptance of his own death, and the strength of will to inflict the most painful of deaths upon himself – probably like me (and the bulk of modern Japanese incidently), you would find the situation morally repugnant, but in the context of the culture could you say that it is an admirable and “good” course of action?

  • Obelos

    I haven’t read the full context of that quote, but it sounds like Nietzsche’s ambition is to evaluate the functional value of the process of producing morality more so than to gauge the relative merits of any set of moral systems. As in: whether or not there are objective criteria for adjudicating moral standard is immaterial. The value issues from the functional output of the process of constructing such systems, from the differential conflict that arises by contending that certain criteria exist. This meshes with his notion of the reactive, slavish relationship to morality versus the active process of the master creating his own.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, he is also interested in the process of constructing such systems. But that is not mutually exclusive with assessing them for their relative worth in each case’s particulars.

  • http://www.docsoc.com Joel Marks

    Dear Daniel,

    I happened upon a couple of blog posts by you about my Opinionator pieces in the New York Times. Thank you for taking my ideas so seriously, and indeed sharing many of them (or their genesis, anyway). I’m sure we would have a great deal to discuss, and probably without end, if we engaged in dialogue; but I thought I should correct what I see as a couple of errors in your characterization of my view so that at least we would not be talking past each other. In particular, I am not a moral relativist. I consider moral relativism to be unintelligible; but even if intelligible, it would only carry on the central mistake of morality in a different guise, namely, to postulate an absolute ought (albeit for a limited community or whatnot).

    There is certainly a great deal to be said for the functional value of moralities, where morality is understood as a sociological phenomenon. However, that is just as true for theism, yet it does not make theism true for all that, I’m sure you would agree.

    Of course my rejection of morality (i.e., metaphysical morality) presumes a particular analysis of morality, and all I can really say is that it is the conception of morality that I myself had embraced. But my rejection encompasses as well the empirical claim that sociological morality serves a function worth respecting, since I think in the scheme of things, at least nowadays, it does more harm than good (where I conceive harm and good also in terms of our desires, whether individual or collective).

    I’ll just make one more point here: I do not reject morality on the basis of its genesis, which would indeed be to commit the genetic fallacy. After all, our of our beliefs about the physical world also arise contingently, but that is a separate question from whether they are true or false. No, instead I have a positive argument for the falsity of morality, which is usually known in the trade as the argument to the best explanation.

    By the way, I don’t know if you caught my follow-up piece in the Opinionator: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/02/atheism-amorality-and-animals-a-response/ . Here I delve a little more deeply into some of the details. But ultimately I could not do any of this justice except to write a book about it, which is now in search of a publisher.

    Thanks again for the simulating discussions of my … and your … thoughts.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Dear Joel,

      Thanks so much for so graciously writing in. I will append your reply to the bottom of my post covering your original Opinionator piece. Additionally, in the next week and a half I hope to build a post around this reply you have written here and quotes, summaries, and responses to your follow up Opinionator piece.

      Coincidentally, I already have a post lined up to run tomorrow called “Force and Reason”, in which I make an argument and then at the end challenge my position with a lengthy quote from your first Opinionator piece which I have been mulling over since I read it (including mentioning it several times in my lectures to my students).

      Thanks for reaching out, I hope the already written post on reason and emotions and the upcoming one trying to set the record straight on your positions are both worth your while and do more justice to your positions!

  • Jay

    This quote from Nietzsche was not comprehended properly. In the passage you quoted, Nietzsche is simply declaring that he has set upon the task of discovering the genealogy and value of morals. Nietzsche doesn’t say that the claim that no morality is binding is childish. He says that to ‘infer’ the claim that no morality is binding from the fact that different peoples necessarily have different moralities is childish. After all, the existence of different moral valuations does not prove the nonexistence of moral principles that are unconditionally binding for all men. Nietzsche also famously claimed that “there are no moral facts” in Twilight of the Idols. Nietzsche was, essentially, an axiological emotivist, relativist and consequentialist.

  • Svein Olav Glesaaen Nyberg

    Very interesting, but this does imply an underlying moralty, or meta-morality, against which this “good” is measured.


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