Now that I have more time to blog regularly, I intend to finally follow through on my plan from the summer to blog about Nietzsche every Saturday. So hopefully this post will in retrospect be seen as the return of “Nietzsche Saturday”.
Some people are puzzled that I defend morality and objective values when I also wrote my doctoral dissertation sympathetically explicating the philosophy of that infamous self-proclaimed “immoralist” Friedrich Nietzsche. I think it sounds even stranger and more impossible to people when I claim that it was precisely Nietzsche himself who made me realize objective values could be possible. In my dissertation, I worked out in detail what I think is the core logic of Nietzsche’s philosophy that makes the most coherent sense of it and balances all of Nietzsche’s main philosophical priorities. At the beginning of the process of doing this I was completely prepared to argue against objective values. But increasingly as I went on really studying and trying to reconcile the multitude of things Nietzsche says a different picture emerged, one that was in many ways decisively persuasive to me not only as a scholar of Nietzsche but as a philosopher of morality trying to make sense of values and ethics in their own rights.
It will take me a lot of posts to explore all the nuances of Nietzsche’s views on moral philosophy and how I agree and disagree with them. In my teaching and posting on Nietzsche I like to zero in on particular texts and explicate them individually. In this post, I want to look at part of section 3 of the preface to On The Genealogy of Morals. This section has a particular context. Throughout this preface Nietzsche is, for interesting reasons to be discussed another time, expressing a great deal of self-satisfaction over what he takes to be the endurance and maturation of the ideas he had first published about a decade earlier and which he thought he could trace to earlier in his life. He was taking it as a good sign that the longer he thought, the more he was convinced of these core ideas and that they were becoming better developed over time. He saw these ideas as the ripening “fruits” of the “tree” that he was. He was profoundly identifying himself with his ideas as a kind of self-manifestation and self-expression.
So in this context, one of describing how fundamental the ideas he was about to present in the work he was prefacing were both a reiteration and a culmination of a lifetime of developing a few integral key insights that were basic to him and his perspective on the world, he characterizes his primary approach to morality. He goes over its motivation and its methodology. This is a text that is explicitly meta in nature. It is a text where Nietzsche is interpreting for us what he sees himself doing throughout his career as his fundamental project when analyzing moral concepts. After tantalizingly tracing the origin of his thinking about good and evil to when as a pre-adolescent he reasoned that God must be the origin of evil, he explains his move to empirically investigating morality as an adult:
I soon learned to separate theological from moral prejudices, and I gave up looking for a supernatural origin of evil. A certain amount of historical and philological education, to say nothing of an innate faculty of psychological discrimination par excellence succeeded in transforming almost immediately my original problem into the following one:— Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgments of values, “Good” and “Evil”? And ‘what intrinsic value do they possess in themselves? Have they up to the present hindered or advanced human well-being? Are they a symptom of the distress, impoverishment, and degeneration of Human Life? Or, conversely, is it in them that is manifested the fullness, the strength, and the will of Life, its courage, its self-confidence, its future? On this point I found and hazarded in my mind the most diverse answers, I established distinctions in periods, peoples, and castes, I became a specialist in my problem, and from my answers grew new questions, new investigations, new conjectures, new probabilities; until at last I had a land of my own and a soil of my own, a whole secret world growing and flowering, like hidden gardens of whose existence no one could have an inkling
A lot of readers only see in a text like this the claim that humans invent for themselves the judgments “good” and “evil” and stop there, declare Nietzsche to not believe in any kind of moral truth because he believes humans invent the categories of “good” and “evil”, and are done with it. But that’s not the whole story at all here. If we are to take seriously everything he says, we see right in the next sentence that his chief question was “what intrinsic value do they possess in themselves”? In other words even if, as a matter of history it is the case that different peoples create different systems of judgment of “good” and “evil”, we can still ask about the intrinsic value of these judgments of good and evil (and of the very categories “good” and “evil” themselves). [UPDATE: In the comments a reader raised a worthwhile challenge to the rightness of the translator's use of the phrase "intrinsic value" and I replied and also wrote a detailed follow up post on the multiple meanings of "intrinsic value" and then further examined the themes in this post at the end.]
Some might think that Nietzsche may ask about the intrinsic value of “good” and “evil” but then find as his answer to the question the proposition that there is no such thing as intrinsic value and that therefore there is no real good and no real evil. But that’s not what Nietzsche indicates his conclusion is at all. Right after pointing out the question of the intrinsic value of judgments of good and evil, the next questions he presents himself as motivated by are all criteria for assessing the intrinsic value of good and evil judgments. They are clearly elaborations on what he takes to be the standards of the valuable or detrimental by which judgments of a thing’s intrinsic value can be assessed.
So, what are these criteria for assessing judgments of “good” and “evil”? Nietzsche could not be much clearer: “Have they up to the present hindered or advanced human well-being? Are they a symptom of the distress, impoverishment, and degeneration of Human Life? Or, conversely, is it in them that is manifested the fullness, the strength, and the will of Life, its courage, its self-confidence, its future?” And Nietzsche’s meta-reflection on his own activity here lines up perfectly with the actual substance of his writings. These are exactly the kinds of criteria Nietzsche explicitly and implicitly uses all the time in assessing just about everything. Judgments of good and evil, moralities, are to be assessed by how well they advance or hinder humanity.
(Though, later in the book, he will distinguish that there are different ways to advance or hinder humanity. He takes the view, that I reject, that we must choose between advancing either the highest and most flourishing types of humans or the greatest number. I think that’s a false choice because I think personal power and empowerment of others are conceptually inextricable when properly understood.)
Part of this means assessing whether they are “symptoms” of our weakening. What he means by this in many cases is that people of different health are prone to make different kinds of value judgments because their needs are different. Those who are weaker and sicker are going to be more averse to conflict, struggle, challenge, insecurity, etc. because they are going to feel constitutionally incapable of thriving through such things. A morality that demonizes these things and celebrates peaceful cessation of all conflict or personal resignation from striving in life, Nietzsche regularly interprets, is an ethics that arises because of weaker people’s anxieties. They sense implicitly that the precondition of their own survival is cessation of hostilities and personal obstacles and so they start idealizing and promulgating those values and moral rules and personal practices that protect them as they feel helpless, enervated, threatened, overwhelmed by the prospect of an insecure life.
Essentially, Nietzsche thought that the values that appeal to us are often reflections of our own implicit sense of the precondition of our success as we are. So people who develop or embrace ethical systems that celebrate competition and conflict are likely to be people who feel strong and capable of thriving through challenge. Those who propose ethical systems that promote peace and virtues of humility above honor and greatness are more likely to be those who want to bank on others’ cooperation and on mutual self-sacrifice because they fear they’d lose were things more competitive.
Nietzsche wants to figure out what the values are that lead to (and which are developed by the people who already live by and manifest) “the fullness, the strength, and the will of Life, its courage, [and] its self-confidence”. These properties are valuable to Nietzsche because he thinks they represent our “future”. That is, our hope for our future prosperity is in our ability to cultivate these valuable things that correlate with the thriving of humanity. Nietzsche thinks that moralities that lead to these things are to be praised and cultivated. He thinks they are often developed in the first place by the kinds of people who in the first place are already strong and thriving. Such people turn their powerful way of life into a code of explicit values, practices, rules, judgments, etc. because it serves them.
On the flip side, Nietzsche is suspicious of what he takes to be life-denying and destructive moralities because he thinks they are devised as ideological codifications and power structures reflective of the conditions of the weakest and their ways of life. He thinks that the moralities their value priorities are a “symptom” of their “distress, impoverishment, and degeneration” and that their values, if adopted widely, would reflect and reinforce these sorts of gloomy and depressing perspectives and ways of life at the expense of the richer, more ambitious, courageous, and ennobling kinds and be perilous for us all.
So Nietzsche goes about assessing moralities, not by simply exposing that they are social constructs that vary according to historical, psychological, and sociological contingencies and then leaving it at that. The point of Nietzsche’s numerous investigations is not simply to prove cultural relativism and moralities are human inventions and be done with it. His primary goal in exploring the interactions between divergent moralities and their divergent historical, psychological, and sociological determinants and effects is to explore the worth of those moralities and psychologies. He has standards of intrinsic value. He is explicit in several places (including right here in this text) that values like life, strength, fullness, will to power, are intrinsically good and the basis for assessing particular moralities for their relative strengths and weaknesses in different times and places for different peoples. And implicitly, these are his constant categories at work when he’s praising or eviscerating different practices and judgments.
Where Nietzsche deviates from, say, a moral or values absolutist is that he admits (as we all should) that moralities develop in very historically variable ways, influenced by any number of psychological, sociological, and material factors. Moralities differ widely as different people work out imperfectly what they think is best for them and their entire society. There is no supernatural or super-rational intervention to make sure they get it right. By the standard of what is intrinsically valuable, they miss the mark a great deal of the time. They either more or less approximate the ideal. And Nietzsche is pluralistic in that he thinks that it is wholly possible that under differing material conditions, different, and even directly opposite, values can be the ones that will most help two different cultures approximate ideal attainment of the intrinsic values the best. Cultures’ values, codes, and practices are not at all beyond the reach of all objective judgment. But they have to be assessed in their own very specific historical contexts when being so judged. (For one of my elaborations of this point using another of Nietzsche’s texts, see Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism are Equally Childish.)
When I talk about truth and falsity in morality I do not think I am deviating from Nietzsche in substance but in semantics and pragmatics. Where Nietzsche himself would think a morality to one degree better or worse according to standards of intrinsic value, I would simply call that morality “truer or falser” as well. I think the judgment is essentially the same in content but I think reclaiming morality and revising understanding of what it is to be a more contextually sensitive, revisable, and properly variable mode of practical reasoning that can be done more rightly or more wrongly, and judged and improved accordingly, is a much more rational and practical strategy than trying to define morality rigidly by its falsest, most absolutist, and irredeemable interpretation and telling people it’s “all an error”. Objectivity does not require that we call propositions completely false just for not being absolutely true. We understand this in the case of science, that has enormously powerful and compelling, yet still in a sense always provisional and partial, truths. We think of science as basically a matter of basically objective knowledge, even though it is not an endeavor that yields absolute and unrevisable truths. It is unfair, irrational, and counter-productive to hold morality or values in general to a different, absolutist standard. (In fact, carrying through consistently on such a double standard, in a way that scientistic skeptics of value rarely allow themselves to do, really would undermine science too.)
People are always going to engage in moral value judgments, rule making, feeling, etc. Rationally and pragmatically, I see it as necessary to line up that language with what actually does correlate with intrinsic values rather than confuse people and scare them away by defining this very tangibly practical endeavor (that they’re profoundly existentially invested in and engaged with) in the worst possible way and saying it is all false.
Finally, I should always hasten to add that just because I agree with the broad outlines of Nietzsche’s views, I do not necessarily endorse any particular value judgment or reading of history or psychology that I explicate from him (not by a long stretch). Before assuming I agree with any particular nuance that I did not explicitly back up in this or other blog posts, please ask me my views on it. And also my own writings on ethical topics express my views in a fair amount of depth and they diverge from Nietzsche’s own views in a number of places. Wherever there’s a disagreement between what I say in my own voice and what I say as Nietzsche’s exegete, you should always take what I say in my own voice as my personal position. While Nietzsche influenced my basic ethical framework strongly, I apply even principles we agree on to come to different particular conclusions from him in a number of places, and I explicitly distanced myself from at least 7 key aspects of his writing in my dissertation when I set about distinguishing my own neo-Nietzschean ethical system from Nietzsche’s writings themselves.
Also, Nietzsche says enough divergent things throughout his writings that I have little doubt some readers can find texts that they think rule out definitively the idea that Nietzsche thinks there are intrinsic values or that anything like morality should ever be endorsed as “true” rather than an “error”. I invite you to send me those texts and, even if it takes me a while to get around to them, I will eventually explicate them specifically and show why I don’t think they’re devastating to my overall thesis.
Below are some key posts that flesh out key points from the foregoing: