Nietzsche: "'Good' Is No Longer Good When One's Neighbor Mouths It"

Nietzsche: "'Good' Is No Longer Good When One's Neighbor Mouths It" September 26, 2011

I argued yesterday that Nietzsche believes that there are objective standards of value for assessing divergent moralities. In reply, Juno (of the blog Letters from Le Vrai) asks what I would make of Section 43 of Beyond Good and Evil which reads, in full, as follows:

Are these coming philosophers new friends of “truth”? That is probable enough, for all philosophers so far have loved their truths. But they will certainly not be dogmatists. It must offend their pride, also their taste, if their truth is supposed to be a truth for everyman which has so far been the secret wish and hidden meaning of all dogmatic aspirations. “My judgment is my judgment”: no one else is easily entitled to it–that is what such a philosopher of the future may perhaps say of himself.

One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. “Good” is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths it. And how should there be a “common good”! The term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refind, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare.

If I am right, and Nietzsche thinks that there is an objective, universal truth about goodness, what are we to make of this test?

The first thing to note is that Nietzsche seems to assume values realism when he refers to “the great”, “the profound”, “the refined” and “the rare”. Rare could in some contexts mean just “statistically unusual”, which would be a factual, non-value sense of the term, but here Nietzsche seems clearly to mean “those who are so great, profound, and refined that their achievement is rare”. So, this is consistent with my reading wherein he truly believes in a standard of true goodness by which we could judge truthfully that there are things like higher and lower levels of greatness, profundity, and refinement.

But what are we to make of the prima facie rejection of values realism when he insists there can be no “common good” and that “‘good’ is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths it”? Why not infer from these notions that he’s a values anti-realist, rather than infer from his honorific terms that he is a values realist?

Notice, first of all, that twice he uses scare quotes to signal that common uses of the word “good” refer to false understandings of the true good. What the neighbor, i.e., the average person one encounters, calls “good” is not truly good. The “good” mouthed by the neighbor is not good in a literal, no-scare-quotes, sense. Neither is the scare quoted “common good” good in the literal, no-scare-quotes, sense.

Nietzsche is making unambiguous value judgments here, denouncing specific kinds of value goals as false, and promoting what he takes to be a better way of valuing over a worse one. He even goes so far as to reject the idea of a common good as inherently contradictory, which is hardly just meant as a statement of his personal distaste.

But why cannot what is valued in common by many be good? And how can there be a universal human good if there cannot be a common one? How can there be an objective, universal truth if philosophers are only to have their own judgments to which not all are entitled?

There are several things going on here that need to be clarified.

The first important thing to note is that even though Nietzsche thinks that the will to power and flourishing are universal goods, different moralities can pursue these goods in vastly different ways. Sometimes this can lead even diametrically opposed moralities, which would mutually condemn each other’s specific rules, to comparable success in making their respective adherents thrive. And, similarly, moralities can fail in opposite ways to lead to flourishing.

Now, everyone lives under a morality (or several) and it is extremely difficult to assess one’s morality from an external standpoint that does not just assume its legitimacy but calls into question whether or not it is truly leading to flourishing and to question whose flourishing it leads to exactly.

Nietzsche has a great deal of contempt for historical philosophers for frequently writing their philosophies as expressions of their cultures’ dominant moralities, exhibiting little critical, moral independence from their reigning paradigms. Nietzsche thinks the truly free thinker, truly concerned with truth alone would have the necessary courage and suspicion to interrogate his culture’s values rather than simply reproduce and propagandize them.

Such a task requires a refinement of virtues of individualism that moralities, with their emphasis on creating conformism, usually try to snuff out of people. Philosophers willing to think for themselves in such a radical way are going to have to be the types of people who temperamentally disdain the easy, lazy, stagnated, secondhand opinions that are in common currency.

To be a philosopher who breaks with the pattern of being a useful beast of burden for society, Nietzsche seems to think you need to have the opposite spirit of the dutiful servant of society, you need to have the feeling that anything merely common is a waste of time and only what is exceptional and hard to attain is of value. For this reason Nietzsche conceives of a sort of virtue of contrarian elitism as worth cultivating as a corrective to our natural herdish conformism.

The philosopher who holds as the standard of the most valuably true that which is hard to realize, rather than what is commonly grasped, is the one who will be motivated to investigate harder and be willing to accept real truths which are counter-intuitive and inaccessible to most people. Think of it this way, what distinguishes the great thinkers and knowers from the ordinary thinkers and knowers is not the truths they know but the difficulty of attaining those truths and the quality ways in which they think about and know those truths. These are excellent virtues possessed by the great thinkers and knowers and that’s what makes their thinking and their knowing great, refined, admirable, and a rare achievement of human flourishing.

The future philosopher will therefore (perhaps) constantly gauge whether he is thinking originally enough and probing deeply enough by checking to make sure that it is not just a rehash of opinion so banal and worn out as to be worthless in its commonness.

Does that mean that if a belief or value is held in common it has no goodness? No, that is too literal and extreme a reading of the text. The point is that it has no especial goodness that makes it worth pursuing as an end. The difficult truths, values, and virtues alone are worth pursuing because in pursuing them one exercises one’s will to power and flourishes most greatly, and, I think, can pull one’s culture forward in one’s trail.

Nietzsche often stresses rareness as giving value itself and commonness as diminishing value itself. The same activity can become more valuable the less common it is and the less valuable the more common it is. Why is this so? Nietzsche is keen to stress the ways that some virtues become stronger and more central in a culture for a time and then “go to sleep” as other, contrary virtues reawaken reinvigorated from their rest. At any given time there are potentially good values and potentially good virtues that have “gone to sleep”. Nietzsche tends to admire those who can revive virtues that a culture is not promoting and not offering ready made guides to realize at the moment. Those who can disdain what is already commonly practiced as good and understood to be good, to retrieve or reinvent a good that is special, show a strength of imagination, intestinal fortitude, creativity, autonomy, and will to power, all of which are genuinely special powers. Such people, as cultural innovators, are also valuable as benefactors more widely–but, as always for Nietzsche their motivation, and the justification of their greatness, should be their own intrinsic excellence and not just their service to society as a tool.

This line of thinking also explains why Nietzsche talks frequently about having one’s own unique virtues. He thinks through this we more fully realize our good of being independent creators. Our virtues’ inherent value gains so much more to the degree that they are also special, rare, distinct, and a product of our own contributions and not just received out of the box from society or standard biology.

Finally, there is no “common good” in the sense that even though we all share the ideal of flourishing in various numerable powers and, most especially, in the will to power, we each must instantiate our powers in our own way, with our own unique idiosyncratic stamp on each power, in a unique combination of virtues which we have special potential to realize, in a unique set of circumstances in which we live. In these ways, the abstract level of universal good does not translate directly into common immediate ends. We both have the good of maximizing our powers as humans. For you that means following one talent in one way in one set of particular circumstances, whereas for me it means following another talent in another way in another set of particular circumstances.

There is a level at which we can objectively assess, how powerful are you according to your various potentials, in your various circumstances, etc. But that is different than saying those should be my pursuits given who I am.

And to some extent not only our non-moral judgments can vary according to personal potential and circumstance but so can some of our moral ones, some of our virtue based ones. This is not to say there are no standards for assessing good and bad choices of others, but it does mean that we have to take seriously what flourishing objectively means in each individual’s case as we assess that individual’s choices.

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