A Brief Overview Of My Dissertation

A Brief Overview Of My Dissertation November 7, 2009

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.

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